What is the poem "Yet Do I Marvel" saying?

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Laurine Herzog eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This poem is about the seeming cruelty of God. Although the poem opens with the line, "I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind," by the end of the poem, after Cullen has listed a number of apparent injustices and flaws in God's creation, the reader must wonder as to the tone of that opening line. The poem closes with the speaker wondering why God would make him, a poet, black, and yet, "bid him sing."

This poem was published in 1925, during a period of particularly heated racial conflict in America, when lynchings were not uncommon, segregation was enforced, and the Klu Klux Klan was undergoing a revival encouraged by the release, in 1915, of the racist film, The Birth of a Nation.

With this in mind, the point that Cullen is making in the closing lines of the poem is that for a poet, whose passion and occupation is to express him or herself, to be born black in such a time as this, when black people were violently and systematically denied their freedom of expression, seems like a cruelly ironic decision on the part of God. The opening line, in which the speaker affirms that he does not doubt God's goodness, might now seem to be tinged with a degree of irony, or even sarcasm.

This view of the poem is supported by the repetition, in line 12, of the word "awful" to describe God's thoughts ("What awful brain") and actions ("His awful hand.") This word has a double meaning. On the one hand it is used here in its more archaic sense, to mean full of awe, or awe-inspiring. It is used in this sense too in the Bible. For example, from Hebrews 10:31, "It is an awful thing to fall into the hands of the ever-loving God," and from Thessalonians 2:8, "the awful splendour of His coming." In "Yet Do I Marvel," the word "awful" is also meant in its more common, modern, negative sense, meaning very bad, unpleasant and objectionable. Cullen means the word, I think, to carry both meanings in the poem. God's thoughts and actions are, or at least seem, at once awe-inspiring, but also bad, unpleasant and objectionable.

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Kristen Lentz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"Yet Do I Marvel" by Countee Cullen focuses on the wonder of God's creation and design by focusing on several examples along the way.  Even though the speaker may not understand the purpose or meaning behind God's perfect design and Creation, he can still appreciate the world for being what it is.  Through the examples like the mole and Sysyphus, the speaker attempts to explain how even though his own limited perception may not understand why or how God chooses to do things in the world, he can marvel at the magnificence of the world all the same.  Ultimately, the speaker chooses admiration for God's creation over frustration and lack of understanding.

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