YET DO I MARVEL
by Thomas J. Sienkewicz
Published in Masterplots II: Poetry, Salem Press (1992), 1455-1459.
Author: Countee Cullen (Countee LeRoy Porter, 1903-1946)
Type of poem: Sonnet
First published: "Yet Do I Marvel," in Color, 1925; reprinted in 1969.
Like all sonnets, "Yet Do I Marvel" is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Its seven rhymes are arranged in two quatrains, abab and cdcd, and one sextet eeffgg. The two quatrains not only use a similar metrical pattern but also form a single grammatical unit in which the poet makes several observations and poses his problem. In the sextet the poet draws a general conclusion from these observations. The final couplet of the poem offers a dramatic, personal turn in which the poet transforms this general observation into a statement about his own position in the world. The title, a quote from the thirteenth line of the poem, reflects the theme of wonder and amazement around which the poem moves.
The poem is a first-person monologue in which a Black poet, indistinguishable from Cullen, voices doubt and confusion about the world, about the relationship between God and man, and about this particular poet's place in the world. No audience is addressed directly.
The poet begins by professing his belief in a God who is all-good, good-intentioned and almighty. He also affirms that God has reasons for everything that happens in the world, even if these reasons are often difficult for humans to understand. In particular, the poet wonders why such an all-good Supreme Being could allow things like physical disabilities and death.
In the two quatrains the poet observes several examples of worldly imperfection. He mentions the blindness of the mole and the mortality of human flesh. He also refers to the never- ending punishments of two figures from Greek mythology: Tantalus, plagued by unquenchable hunger and thirst in the midst of unreachable food and drink; and Sisyphus, faced with the impossible task of rolling uphill a rock which continuously slips back to the starting-point before the task is finished.
In the sextet the poet wonders whether there is any way to explain the blindness of the mole, the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus or the death of human beings and decides that only God has a satisfactory explanation for these worldly imperfections. The ways of God are beyond understanding and human beings are too distracted by the everyday cares of life to see reason behind the mighty hands of God.
The poet does not mention that he is Black until the final couplet. The "I" at the beginning of the poem is an anonymous human. At the end of the poem this "I" proudly reveals himself to be not only a poet, but a Black poet. This revelation transforms the poem from a general comment upon the human experience to personal reflection. Of all the incomprehensible actions of God, the most amazing for the poet to understand is that God made him both a poet and Black.
Forms and Devices
The language of this sonnet is highly polished. The iambic pentameter metre offers a steady rhythm which confirms the poet's own fixed belief in God. The end-rhyming couplets create a list of significant words which resonate throughout the poem. In the first quatrain the pairs contrast the nature of God and the plight of humankind ("kind" versus "blind") and echo the poem's essential question ("why" and "die"). Later in the poem "immune" and "strewn" also contrast the conditions of God and human. The role of Tantalus and Sisyphus in the poem is also emphasized by their coupling in rhyme.
The poem contains alliterative phrases like "fickle fruit" and "tortured Tantalus". Dramatic repetition highlights words like "why," which poses the basic question of the poem, and "awful", which is used to described both God's hand and God's mind.
An important literary device in the poem is the catalogue, or list, which Cullen employs in the first line to describe three qualities of God ("good, well-meaning, kind"). Lists also appear throughout the two quatrains in which the poet not only offers a list of God's mysteries, including the mole's blindness, the mortality of humans, and the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus, but also uses a string of synonyms ("could tell", "make plain" and "declare") to affirm God's ability to provide explanations for these mysteries.
Cullen employs metonymy when he uses "flesh" to refer to human beings. He also creates a metaphor when he suggests that humans "mirror" the image of God. In this metaphor human flesh is compared to a looking glass which reflects the image of God.
Anthropomorphism is a dominant feature of this poem in which Tantalus' fruit is associated with human characteristics via words like "fickle" and "baits". God's humanity is also very strong. Cullen's Supreme Being is not only identified with traditional masculine personal pronouns and adjectives like "He" and "His" but God is also said to "stoop" and has a brain and a hand.
Two important areas of allusion in the poem are Classical mythology and the Bible. The mythological references center around Sisyphus and Tantalus, two great sinners of ancient Greece. In the poem, Cullen ignores ancient accounts of the crimes of Tantalus, who tried to outwit the gods by feeding them the flesh of his own son, and Sisyphus who tried to escape death. Instead Cullen presents their eternal punishments in the afterlife as essentially inexplicable. Humankind simply does not possess sufficient perspective to understand why Sisyphus must eternally roll that rock up the hill or why Tantalus must forever thirst. In this way both sinners become symbols of the pathos, the meaningless suffering of the human condition.
Cullen's biblical allusion turns especially on the book of Genesis where Adam, the first man, is made in the image and likeness of God. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition this divine element in humans is a source of hope and even a promise of life after death. For Cullen, however, the divine image of God within mortals is also another example of the frustrating plight of human existence. Although made in God's image, the human body must die.
Irony, an intense sense of contradiction, thus pervades the poem. Although their human flesh is god-like, Tantalus and Sisyphus experience incomprehensible suffering and their condition reflects the ironic condition of every mortal, poised between God and death.
Themes and Meanings
The strong mood of religious reflection in this poem stems in large part from the central position of the Christian church in the culture of Afro-Americans. Intensity of religious fervor and a vivid sense of divine anthropomorphism are common themes in the poetry of Black American poets.
A second important theme for Cullen is his race. Blackness is a focal point of the poem. It is the last of a series of imponderables in the human condition. On the one hand, the poet's black skin is included in the same category as the blindness of the mole or the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus. It is another example of the mysterious ways of a God who inexplicably made humans of different skin color. On the other hand, the blackness of the poet is a source of pride, a gift of that Almighty Creator whose ways are always right. Thus Cullen, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance in the early part of the twentieth century, was asserting the mysterious beauty of black skin long before the Civil Rights movement made Black pride fashionable later in the century.
At the same time, Cullen's experience as a Black man is set in the context of his role as a poet. He is a poet made Black, not a Black made a poet. Like his black skin, Cullen's poetic talent is a mysterious source of both pain and joy. This poet who fashions a highly polished poem filled with sophisticated allusion is, at the same time, a member of an oppressed race often denied the opportunity to acquire such erudition and poetic skill.
Indeed, Cullen emphasizes the involuntary nature of his poetry. He did not choose to be a poet any more than he chose to be Black. It was God who made him both a poet and Black. It is God who commands him to sing. The poet cannot help himself anymore than he could change the color of his skin. The source of his poetic power is divine and lies outside him. While some poets find this source in nature or in the personal subconscious, Cullen attributes this power to the Supreme Being who dominates this poem. Cullen's insistence upon the divine inspiration of the poet is appropriate in a poem which combines themes from Classical and Biblical sources, for both traditions affirm the ability of supernatural beings to speak through humans. The Greeks called these deities of inspiration Muses while the Biblical God inspires prophets with warnings for humans. A similar God bids Cullen to sing.
In the end, the poem offers more than the personal perspective of a Black poet. It speaks not just of the Black condition but of the human condition. All humans feel the irony of a life filled with petty cares, with mysteries, with struggle and with death, but a life brimming with the marvel of God's great deeds, with the excitement of divine inspiration, and with an appreciation for the beauty of a poem well made.