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The classical allusions in Countee Cullen’s poem “Yet Do I Marvel” contribute effectively to the poem in a number of ways. In lines 5-8 of the poem, the speaker alludes to the classical myths of both Tantalus and Sisyphus. He suggests that God might be able to
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, [and] declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair. (5-8)
Tantalus, in Greek myth, is tortured in the underworld by being denied the opportunity either to eat or drink, even though both water and fruit seem clearly within his reach. Yet he can in fact reach neither: his situation, then, is “tantalizing” in the sense that the objects of his desire are visible but he is constantly denied them.
Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, is punished in the underworld by being forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill. When the boulder had been rolled to the very top, it inevitably rolls over and down the other side of the hill, thus forcing Sisyphus to repeat the process endlessly. The speaker in Cullen’s poem compares himself to both Tantalus and Sisyphys.
These two classical allusions contribute effectively to Cullen’s poem in a number of ways, including the following:
- The speaker compares himself, as a black poet, to Tantalus because the speaker, even more than most poets, continually runs the risk of denial and disappointment.
- The speaker compares himself, as a black poet, to Sisyphus because the speaker, even more than most poets, continually runs the risk of frustration, of doing endless work without achieving any satisfying or enduring results.
- Ironically, Tantalus and Sisyphus were both being punished for actual infractions they had committed. Yet the speaker of Cullen’s poem has committed no wrong; he has merely been born black. Tantalus and Sisyphus arguably deserve to be punished; the speaker of Cullen’s poem does not.
- Ironically, Tantalus and Sisyphus were both punished by “gods” whom Cullen and most of his contemporaries would have regarded as mere figments of the human imagination. In other words, their stories are mere myths. The speaker in Cullen’s poem, however, sees himself as having been victimized, in a way, by the Christian God himself. The Christian God is typically associated with both mercy and justice, but the speaker of Cullen’s poem seems to think that he has been treated neither mercifully nor justly. His story, he suggests, is not a simple myth but a very painful reality.
- Tantalus and Sisyphus suffer only after they die, whereas the speaker of Cullen’s poem implies that he is suffering, as a black poet, even while he lives.
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