‘Yet Do I Marvel’ is a poem by Countee Cullen (1903-46), an important poet in the literary and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. In the poem, Cullen considers the mysterious ways of God, which include God’s desire to create a Black poet whom he has instilled with the ability to ‘sing’.
Before we offer an analysis of ‘Yet Do I Marvel’, let’s go through the poem carefully, summarising its meaning.
‘Yet Do I Marvel’: summary
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,
Cullen begins by stating that he does not doubt that God is good and kind. But it would be nice if God would lower himself enough to debate something with Cullen: namely, could he tell him why the mole that burrows in the earth continues to be blind, and why humans – created, the Bible tells us, in God’s own image – has to die some day?
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.
In addition, perhaps God could explain to Cullen why Tantalus, who in Greek myth was tortured forever by having fruit and water always just out of his reach so he was forever thirsty and hungry, is being tortured in the way he is. (Tantalus’ punishment is the source of our verb to tantalise, by the way.)
Turning to another story from Greek mythology, Cullen asks whether it was merely an unkind whim that led God to punish Sisyphus by making him endlessly struggle to roll a boulder up to the top of a hill or ‘stair’, before the boulder promptly rolled back to the bottom of the hill and Sisyphus had to start all over again.
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!
Cullen concludes that God’s ‘ways’ or methods are so mysterious that we cannot understand them. And no amount of questioning or ‘catechism’ from the poet will allow him to understand the workings of God’s mind which controls his divine hand, especially when Cullen’s own mind is too full of his own small worries to attend to such big thoughts. (‘Awful’ here is ambiguous: Cullen is probably using the word in its older sense, denoting something awe-inspiring and powerful, although the word also carries a suggestion of its modern meaning: namely, ‘terrible’.)
In the poem’s final couplet, Cullen states that, despite his reluctance to probe these other vast questions about God’s ways, he cannot help being in awe of the fact that God made Cullen, an African American man, a poet of all things, and made him ‘sing’ as a poet does.
‘Yet Do I Marvel’: analysis
‘God moves in a mysterious way, / His wonders to perform’, a famous eighteenth-century hymn had it; the notion that God’s motives and methods are unfathomable to mere mortals is an old one. In ‘Yet Do I Marvel’, Countee Cullen explores this, arguing that he has faith that God is good and kind, despite all of the suffering and cruelty in the world.
A key aspect of the poem, however, is that concluding couplet, which addresses Cullen’s race specifically. Cullen was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a period in which African-American writing flourished in New York in the 1920s and early 1930s. Cullen once remarked: ‘I find that I am actuated by a strong sense of race consciousness. This grows upon me.’ Yet as a poet he wished not to move away from the English poetic tradition, but to write within it. Unlike some of his contemporaries in Harlem, such as Langston Hughes, Cullen eschewed the jazz-influenced rhythms of free verse, instead favouring traditional forms such as the sonnet.
And yet it would be for his lyrics dealing with race issues, perhaps most famously ‘Incident’, that Cullen would achieve the most renown as a poet. ‘Yet Do I Marvel’ explores and exposes this double bind to his work: it is a traditional poem in a traditional form (more on its use of the sonnet form in a moment), and the only mention of Cullen’s ethnicity comes in the sonnet’s closing couplet.
Cullen was a Christian, so it is understandable that his work would explore his faith and his attitude to God. The language, however, is far from pious or meek, calling out what Cullen perceives to be the ‘brute caprice’ or whim of God’s actions, which include not only punishing but perpetually torturing others.
Here, however, it is perhaps significant that Cullen does not mention the obvious eternal punishment associated with Christianity: hell. Instead, he opts for the pagan, pre-Christian ideas of ‘hellish’ torment, embodied by the endless sufferings of Tantalus and Sisyphus. This softens his criticism of God (by referencing non-Christian stories of perpetual suffering), and paves the way for the ‘turn’ in that final couplet, when he appears to accept his ‘lot’ that God has given him.
‘Yet Do I Marvel’ is an example of a sonnet, although Cullen innovates with the rhyme scheme. Although the poem is written in iambic pentameter, in keeping with the traditional sonnet, and although the first eight lines follow the familiar ababcdcd rhyme scheme we find in the English or ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet, the last six lines take a different turn, comprising three couplets rhymed eeffgg, rather than the usual efefgg we find in an English sonnet.
This brings the ideas in those closing six lines closer together, and suggests a uniformity and pattern which reflects the idea of God’s ‘plan’ being all for the best after all. ‘Who am I to question God’s ways, when I have so many of my own concerns to worry about?’ Cullen seems to say, throwing up his hands. But he has his voice, and will use it.