Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679
“God Give to Men,” by the African-American poet Arna Bontemps (1902-1973), is written in an appealingly simple, accessible style. Some of its phrasing, however, is intriguingly thought-provoking, and, as the poem evolves, its tone develops a sharp, distinct edge. This text, in other words, becomes more complex than it might initially appear.
In the opening stanza, the subject of race—a major theme of the work as a whole—becomes explicit in the very first line. So does the subject of “God,” another major theme. The opening line seems to take God’s existence and power for granted, and that line also immediately seems to imply that the poem is intended as a prayer. God is asked to
...give the yellow man
an easy breeze at blossom time. (1-2)
The first line suggests that humans tend to categorize each other in terms of race and color, but here the tone is not racist, condescending, or abusive. Instead, the speaker (who apparently is not “yellow”) wishes Asians pleasure and beauty. The tone of the poem at this point seems generous and affirmative, with none of the irony and implied sarcasm that will develop later. The speaker prays for (or at least requests) blessings for “the yellow man,” and the phrase “easy breeze,” with its triple assonance on the long “e” sound, contributes a pleasant music to the second line, as does the alliteration found in “breeze” and “blossom” and also in “easy,” “breeze,” and “blossom.” The second line, in other words, seems especially and appealingly musical. In the meantime, both the reference to the “easy breeze” and the reference to “blossom time” associate Asians with natural comfort and natural beauty, at least in the sense that the speaker hopes that they will enjoy both.
The rest of the opening stanza further develops the tone, imagery, and even sounds established in the opening two lines. Thus the word “Grant” (3) echoes the generosity implied by the earlier word “give” (1); the words “eager” (3) and “dream” (4) echo the assonance heard earlier in the term “easy breeze” (2); and the word “land” once more associates Asians with nature. The reference to “slanting eyes” (3) may sound problematic today, but when the poem was originally written this word probably would not have provoked a second thought, and nothing suggests that it is meant here as derogatory. Instead, Asians are wished peace and pleasure both in the present and in the future, both in reality and in “dream[s]” of the future (4-5). The tone of the opening stanza is calm, peaceful, generous, positive, and beneficent. The word “cover” (3) is intriguing: in what senses should an...
(The entire section contains 679 words.)
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