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On "Yet Do I Marvel"

Catherine H. Copeland

Constructionally, the sonnet consists of only three declarative sentences, equivalent opposites, with the types shifting from compound-complex to complex to simple; decreasing in length from eight lines to four lines to two lines. He thus unifies the poem by lessening the length of the sentences but having them gain in importance, climaxing his thought with a terse simple sentence ending in an appositive expression.

Within the sentence construct, observe that line two ends with the word why which introduces the constituent sentence "Why the little buried mole continues blind," and line four begins with the word why which introduces the constituent sentence "Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die." Note that positionally as well as characteristically they are equivalent opposites. Syntactically, however, they are equivalent comparables, both serving as direct objects of the verb phrase could tell, the subject He being understood. Moreover line twelve, "What awful brain compels His awful hand " not only couples with line four structurally, but positionally as well. It also has syntactical equivalence to both aforementioned constituent sentences, since it, as they, serves as the direct object of the transitive verb form, in this case to understand.

A further look at the verb constructs reveals that the clauses "did He stoop" in line two and "do I marvel" in line thirteen both maintain equivalent positions following the introductory joining words and and yet, and that both verb phrases are split by their pronoun opposite subjects He and I. Similarly, equivalent positions are held by the infinitives "to struggle" in line eight and "to make" in line fourteen, although their complements, a prepositional phrase following the former and a direct object and objective complement following the latter are equivalent opposites; while the infinitive "to understand" is complemented by the noun clause "What awful brain compels His awful hand," still another opposite.

Besides the coupling of larger constructions, Cullen couples words in a series in line one, good, well-meaning, kind, all modifying God, and in compound, inscrutible, Immune, in line nine, both modifying the noun ways. Moreover, he has coupled the noun phrases "awful brain" and "awful mind" in line twelve in opposite positions to the verb compels, one before and one after, and in opposite relations to the verb, the former as subject, the latter as object. So much for positional and syntactical coupling!

No less pronounced is Cullen's use of coupling of the Type II equivalences, concerned with phonics and semantics. Phonically he has elaborately employed alliteration throughout the poem in such couples as mole, mirrors, must, and mind; buried, blind, baited, bid, by, brain, and brute; did, day, and die; God, good; fickle, fruit; tortured, Tantalus; Sisyphus, stair, stoop, struggle, and strewn.

Moreover, in line one, he couples five of the eight words in the line phonetically—doubt, not, that; God and good; the first three of these words ending with the voiceless, alveolar stop /t/; the last two beginning with the voiced velar stop /g/ and ending with the voiced alveolar stop /d/. Furthermore, Cullen makes such frequent use of the alveolar stop /d/ in words like doubt, did, day, die declare to begin the word and in the words kind, buried, blind, tortured, baited, mind, understand, and hand to end the word that throughout the poem one senses the "doom" of his indecision which follows.

Finally, in Type II equivalences Cullen employs the paradigm of coupling involving semantics. There is first his coupling of synonymous adjectives, good, well-meaning, kind, in his description of God, all pointing out His excellent qualities in line one; and of His ways, inscrutable, immune, both depicting a sense of impenetrability in line nine, utilizing comparables in both cases. He then moves from the area of word coupling to that of incident coupling; first, coupling opposite extremes, the lowly mole and the regal kings; then comparables, Sisyphus and Tantalus, equivalent in social status, in the enormity of their crimes, in the severity of their punishment, and in their placement in literature, both mythical characters. In addition, there is the contrast in religious beliefs—the Christian God on the one hand, the mythical gods on the other.

It thus becomes evident that Cullen's use of coupling was not accidental, nor was it merely a succession of syntagms, but rather a combination with a system of paradigms which W. Nelson Francis describes as "A system of morphemic variations which corresponds to a parallel system of variations in environment (and hence of structural meaning)."

Cullen skillfully employed Types I and II, coupling positional and natural equivalences, alternating comparables and opposites, in unifying his fate-filled sonnet, the better to signify his complete frustration portrayed in the final line, " To make a poet black and bid him sing,." In so doing, he has indeed fulfilled the principle of equivalence from axis of selection into the axis of combination."

from "The Unifying Effect of Coupling in Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel.'" CLA 8.2 (1974).

Fred M. Fetrow

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:

[. . . .]

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.

from The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

This work, filled with cunning verbal contradictions, concerns the almost paralytic encounter between blackness and universalized poetic vision.

The sestet is based on a fierce, restrained blasphemy. It would he vain even to ask God, goes Cullen’s argument, why evil, cruelty, torture, and frustration have meaning. It is simply that He is so "awful" that He cannot quibble over such small questions. The repetition of the word "awful" moves from awe-inspiring to horrible, from terrific to terrifying. Indeed, the echo of Blake’s "Songs of Experience" casts God Himself as the man-eating Tyger. The speaker plots a carefully worded resistance, seeming to enhance God, and to blame the small-minded person for doubting the possibility of satisfactory explanations.

The apogee of God’s uncanny ability to put dreadful pressure and frustration in the universe is to create black poets. The apparently simple phrase "curious thing" read via a social philology shows ideological contradictions. First, it means an oddity, here the speaker comments suspiciously upon God and his motives. The distance created by the commentary elaborates the promissory note of the sonnet’s opening phrase doubting God’s beneficence, wherein that very doubt, through denial, is furthered. Second, the speaker wonders that God has made such a novelty something so rare, odd, or intricate. This praises both the nobility of God and [black] humankind. Finally, the poet, being black, is both the curiosity (thing) and the curious questioner (person). To have been both thing and person is precisely the heritage of African-Americans. This opposition is then elaborated by the confrontative rhyme of "thing" and "sing." "Sing!" is held out tantalizingly at the very end of the poem as a goal and imperative, compounding the strength of black poetic authority by seeing it as an almost impossible test of authorship authorized by God himself. In the word "bid," God is both commanding and gambling — raising the stakes for black poets only. The word also has a tinge from the semantic surround "auction," a sotto voce encrypting of enslavement. The poem illustrates, in poised contradiction, the difficulty and the actuality, of African-American poetry.

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Copyright © 2001 Cambridge University Press.

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