The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Countée Cullen’s “Heritage,” a long (128-line) and intensely introspective lyric poem, has been considered a classic since it first appeared in print. The poem can be read as a soliloquy or monologue of a studious but deeply troubled young person who is tormented by the effort to reconcile his inner desires and the decorous behavior expected of him. The first ten lines of the poem express the speaker’s profound feeling of alienation. He is of African ancestry but, as a descendant of people enslaved centuries ago in what is now the United States, he has no actual knowledge of Africa. Because his impressions of the continent and its cultures are limited to images derived from his reading and imagination, the first half of the poem (lines 1-63) constructs a vision of Africa through a series of beautiful, picturesque details: “wild barbaric birds,” feral lions and leopards stalking gentle antelopes, herds of elephants parading through the open savannah grasslands. African people are depicted in equally picturesque terms as savage but regal, beautiful and carefree, lovers unashamed of their nakedness. In choosing such images, Cullen deliberately draws upon the view of Africa that would be familiar to his readers since it was a view reflected in the popular press during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Against this vivid visual backdrop, the speaker imagines that he hears the drums of some unknown tribal ritual temptingly calling to him....

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Heritage Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Heritage” is meant to be read aloud. Cullen’s poem, though carefully constructed in rhymed couplets, nevertheless recalls the hypnotic metrical effect of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1845). That poem—itself based on the meter of a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning—employed subject matter, rhyme, and meter in a manner calculated to induce a sense of anxiety in readers or listeners. “The Raven,” therefore, provided a suitable model for the narrative repetition that marks Cullen’s own exploration of the physical state of insomnia and the mood of anxious doubt.

Cullen meticulously crafts simple rhyming couplets for his seven-syllable line. The skillful employment of alliteration and assonance (repetition of the same vowel sound) adds to the poem’s syncopated rhythmic effect. A good example of this technique is found in lines 23-25:

So I lie, whose fount of pride,Dear distress, and joy allied,Is my somber flesh and skin

Cullen’s fidgety word music and emphasis on kinetic and visual imagery effectively highlights the discrepancy between the speaker’s uncomfortable awareness of his physical being and his conflicted spiritual yearnings. The pivot upon which “Heritage” turns is the repeated phrase “so I lie,” which requires different inflections according to context. Sometimes the phrase connotes the speaker’s restless inactivity and sometimes his awareness of his own spiritual duplicity in claiming a religion in which he might not truly believe.

The poetic images and rhetorical structure of “Heritage”—often actually in opposition to each other—are carefully balanced in order to reinforce the author’s message. The beautiful African python shedding its skin annually so that it can grow is balanced by the insistent tribal drums bidding the speaker to take off the buttoned-up suit and vest that simultaneously denote his status as an educated middle-class Werstern man and the repression of his deepest instincts and desires. Like the snake, his natural impulse is to shed this constricting covering—yet, in this case, that act would represent not growth but rather regression to an uncivilized pagan condition. Similarly, the speaker’s difficult-to-control inner urges are presented using images having to do with flood and fire, suggesting that his subconscious desires are akin to subterranean volcanic forces that would cause chaos should they erupt. Throughout the poem Cullen avoids using abstractions by grounding his rhetoric, even his references to emotions, in sensory perceptions or tangible things.

Heritage Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cullen, Countée. My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countée Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by Gerald Early. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.

Fetrow, Fred M. “Cullen’s ’Yet Do I Marvel.’” Explicator 56, no. 2 (Winter, 1998): 103-106.

Goldweber, David E. “Cullen, Keats, and the Privileged Liar.” Papers on Language and Literature 38, no. 1 (Winter, 2002): 29-49.

Lomax, Michael L. “Countée Cullen: A Key to the Puzzle.” In The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, edited by Victor A. Kramer. New York: AMS Press, 1987.

Powers, Peter. “’The Singing Man Who Must Be Reckoned With’: Private Desire and Public Responsibility in the Poetry of Countée Cullen.” African American Review 34, no. 4 (Winter, 2000): 661-679.

Shucard, Alan R. Countée Cullen. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Turner, Darwin T. “Countée Cullen: The Lost Ariel.” In In a Minor Chord: Three African American Writers and Their Search for Identity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.