Magazine: The Explicator, Winter 1998

CULLEN'S YET DO I MARVEL

Countee Cullen's best known poem, "Yet Do I Marvel" (1925), has been as widely misinterpreted as a poem as Cullen has been misunderstood as a poet. The sonnet seems to many readers and critics no more than the lament of a defeated soul, a complaint by a man unable to resolve the dilemma of being black and a poet. A reconsideration of the poem's structure and logic reveals that Cullen actually expresses the resolution of a paradox, rather than bemoaning his fate.

The poem comprises three quatrains and one couplet that mark off four specific examples of apparent injustice. These serve as preliminary illustrations of paradox, preceding irony of the climactic couplet:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind, And did He stoop to quibble could tell why The little buried mole continues blind, Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die, Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus To struggle up a never-ending stair. Inscrutable His ways are, and immune To catechism by a mind too strewn With petty cares to slightly understand What awful brain compels His awful hand. Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing![*]

The speaker claims not to understand what appear to be unjust punishments, although he assumes these apparent injustices are explicable by God. Cullen selects and arranges these four examples strategically to emphasize his real point.

The first quatrain comprises two cases of seemingly cruel or undeserved punishment. When closely considered, however, these examples are neither unjust nor paradoxical. The "little buried mole continues blind" because he scarcely needs vision to thrive in his underground habitat; rather than being punished, the mole is perfectly equipped for survival. Certainly the mole does not perceive or experience his lot as a punishment. Similarly, man, whose "flesh" . . . mirrors God, will indeed die; but man as a spiritual reflection of his divine maker need die only physically in order to inherit eternal life of the spirit. According to the theology in which Cullen bases his poem, God made man in his image in a spiritual rather than in a physical sense; by so doing, God equipped man for survival beyond the grave. Rather than victims of "brute caprice," mole and man are the recipients of natural and supernatural justice respectively.

With the two allusions to Greek mythology in the second quatrain, Cullen no doubt assumes that the reader will either recognize the references or discover the full stories; that so few readers have done so does not alter the implications of his use of these mythological subtexts. First, the poet pictures Tantalus eternally starving while food is just beyond his grasp. Tantalus, son of Zeus and king of Phrygia, was punished in such a manner for crimes against both mortals and gods. Accounts vary, but generally included among his offenses are stealing nectar and ambrosia from the gods and murdering his own son and serving him up as table food. In light of these crimes, the torture of Tantalus seems a symmetric example of the punishment fitting the offense, and no puzzle at all. The same is true of Cullen's reference to the Sisyphus myth in lines 8 and 9. Sisyphus was doomed to eternal labor (either climbing an unending stairway or repeatedly rolling a large boulder up a hill) because he attempted to usurp eternity by cheating death. Within the context of the myth, his harsh, "never-ending" task is logical and just.

Both the nature and sequence of these four examples clearly indicate that Cullen includes and designs them as preliminary to and analogous with his final paradox. He has included variety ranging from the most mundane of creatures (literally down-to-earth, one might add) to the spiritual disposition of mankind. He has spanned the real and the imaginary, the present natural world and the fictional past. Yet Cullen strings all this on one significant common thread--all four paradoxes are puzzles with built-in solutions. Through these carefully chosen examples the poet leads the reader to the recognition of the reconcilability of the "curious thing" he postulates in the concluding couplet.

There the speaker asserts, "Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!" Note that "this curious thing" is not a dichotomy between being a poet and being black--as some readers are too quick to assume--but between being a black poet and being expected to "sing." Cullen thus cites conditions of circumstance that are indeed difficult but not impossible to reconcile. Had he meant to conclude his sonnet by claiming that it is impossible to be both black and a poet, or for that matter, that it is impossible for a black poet to "sing," he most certainly would not have led up to such assertions with specific self-reconcilable instances. Instead, these previous instances alert the reader that the climactic example is yet another paradox that is just that: a contradiction that is apparent rather than real.

The couplet (and the poem) turns on the connotation of the term "sing." Cullen appropriately notes the difficulty of voicing lyric joy or of freely expressing artistic imagination at the exclusion of his racial status. Any African American poet writing in 1925 would have found it difficult to ignore the suffering of his race, or to "sing" of his blackness without an element of melancholy or rage in his song. Nonetheless, because to sing is so general, so expansive a term, rather than connoting isolation or exclusion, it more readily suggests inclusion, and perhaps even transcendence. Cullen acknowledges, even emphasizes, the difficulty for a black poet in answering that divine call to sing; but through the strategic presentation of precedent, he also claims that the black poet can still articulate his blackness and express his unique racial identity while singing his humanity.

Finally, the sonnet suggests possibility, just as the larger example of Countee Cullen's poetic canon more fully demonstrates that notion. Rather than evidence of his failure, the sonnet can be better and more accurately understood as an illustration of achievement.

WORK CITED

Cullen, Countee. "Yet Do I Marvel." My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Gerald Early. New York: Doubleday, 1991. 79.

[*] "Yet Do I Marvel" by Countee Cullen from My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Culen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Copyright held by Ida M. Culen.

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By FRED M. FETROW, United States Naval Academy

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Source: Explicator, Winter98, Vol. 56 Issue 2, p103, 3p.