Countée Cullen Essay - Critical Essays

Countée Cullen American Literature Analysis

Orderliness is a hallmark of Cullen’s work. In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Cullen’s faith in the orderliness of God’s inexplicable creation is reinforced by the orderliness in the design of the poem, which is a sonnet. The first eight lines present apparent difficulties for human comprehension; the next four lines postulate that God’s ways, when seen from the mortal frame, are seemingly unjust, but if God’s ways could be seen from God’s perspective, then his justice would be clear. The final two lines give the problem poignancy, but faith in God is assured by the wonder of God’s creation. All lines are neatly and naturally rhymed (ababcdcdeeffgg), and the poem is executed in iambic pentameter. Thus Cullen’s poem pits the orderliness of writing against any questions about the orderliness of God’s creation, and the fact that Cullen, an African American poet, is singing eloquently, proves that “Yet Do I Marvel” is a poem of affirmation.

Beyond metrical patterns and rhyme schemes, Cullen in “Yet Do I Marvel” provides a range of literary references. He begins with common references, citing the mole and the human. Cullen elevates the discussion through classical allusions, citing the story of Tantalus, who stole nectar and ambrosia from the gods and was condemned to starve while food was just beyond his reach. In addition, Cullen alludes to the myth of Sisyphus, who sought to elude eternity, but faced eternal frustration in his efforts to ascend stairs (or, in some accounts, to push a boulder up a hill).

Although orderliness is a key factor in Cullen’s work, in “To John Keats, Poet. At Spring Time,” Cullen shows that the poem, like springtime, can be a vibrant combination of regularity and variety. Four stanzas of varying lengths (ten lines, fourteen lines, twelve lines, and ten lines) seem to proceed in four-line units with alternating rhyme, but couplets end the stanzas. In the second stanza, perhaps in tribute to Keats, the rhyme scheme exhibits flashes of freedom (ababaccdcdeeff).

“To John Keats, Poet. At Spring Time” opens with an apostrophe as Cullen addresses John Keats, a person who cannot literally respond to Cullen’s address. Spring is personified as Cullen suggests that spring has a voice, cheeks, breasts, and shoulders. In the concluding stanza, dramatic irony is at work because Cullen allows the reader to know more than the observers who think that Cullen’s response to spring is strange. Unlike the observers, readers have the privilege of knowing the force of Keats in Cullen’s mind and can share Cullen’s delight in springtime and Keats’s voice.

In “Heritage,” Cullen adopts a swift pace that underscores the idea of thoughts racing through the poet’s mind. The rhymed couplets, which prevail in the poem with few exceptions, reinforce the sense of alternation in thinking between African heritage and African American identity. The persistence of the problem of heritage is brought out through the four-line refrain, which ends, “What is Africa to me?” The intensity of the recurring thoughts is made clear through italicized lines. Perhaps the subtlest effects in “Heritage” arise from irony. Cullen’s description of African heritage creates an ironic discrepancy between the realities of African culture and the stereotypical impressions of jungles and heathens. Cullen ironically toys with his reader, testing the reader’s awareness of African identity. Even greater irony emerges in Cullen’s use of the word “civilized.” An ironic discrepancy arises between the presumed refinement and education of the poet’s world and the presumed barbarism of African heritage. In the end, a society that includes hatred, cruelty, war, and lynching can be no more civilized than a land of lions, snakes, and heathens. The fact that the choice between these alternative worlds is tormenting to the poet should ultimately be no surprise to the reader.

In “Uncle Jim,” Cullen resorts to the orderliness of the ballad, with alternation of tetrameter and trimeter in four-line stanzas. In each of the four stanzas, the second and fourth lines rhyme. By quoting Uncle Jim, the speaker reveals African American idiom, but the reply from the speaker displays haughty sophistication. Irony provides the basis for the conclusion as the educated speaker begins to realize that Uncle Jim, not the educated speaker, had the most accurate view of the world of race.

In all, Cullen is a traditional poet who writes eloquently in traditional forms, revealing the influence of John Keats and A. E. Housman. Though Cullen explores the difficulties of African American identity, he is sometimes set aside by readers who insist that African American writers should write in their own idiom and express themes related to their own culture instead of following the models of classic white predecessors.

“Yet Do I Marvel”

First published: 1925 (collected in Color, 1925)

Type of work: Poem

In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Cullen explores the problem of justifying the ways of God to humankind.

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(The entire section is 2105 words.)