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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like all true sonnets, “Yet Do I Marvel” is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Its seven rhymes are arranged in two quatrains, abab and cdcd, and one sestet, eeffgg. The two quatrains not only use a similar metrical pattern but also form a single grammatical unit, in which the poet makes several observations and poses his problem. In the sestet, the poet draws a general conclusion from these observations. The final couplet of the poem offers a dramatic, personal turn, in which the poet transforms this general observation into a statement about his own position in the world. The title, taken from the thirteenth line of the poem, reflects the theme of wonder and amazement around which the poem moves.

The poem is a first-person monologue in which a black poet, indistinguishable from Countée Cullen, voices doubt and confusion about the world, about the relationship between God and man, and about this particular poet’s place in the world. No audience is addressed directly.

The poet begins by professing his belief in a God who is all-good, good-intentioned and almighty. He also affirms that God has reasons for everything that happens in the world, even if these reasons are often difficult for humans to understand. In particular, the poet wonders why such an all-good Supreme Being could allow things like physical disabilities and death.

In the two quatrains, the poet observes several examples of worldly imperfection. He mentions the blindness of the mole and the mortality of human flesh. He also refers to the never-ending punishments of two figures from Greek mythology: Tantalus, plagued by hunger and thirst but prevented from reaching food and drink; and Sisyphus, faced with the impossible task of rolling up a hill a rock that continuously slips back to the starting point before the task is finished.

In the sestet, the poet wonders whether there is any way to explain the blindness of the mole, the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus, or the deaths of human beings, and decides that only God has a satisfactory explanation for these worldly imperfections. The ways of God are beyond understanding, and human beings are too distracted by the everyday cares of life to see reason behind the mighty hands of God.

The poet does not mention that he is black until the final couplet. The “I” at the beginning of the poem is an anonymous human. At the end of the poem, this “I” proudly reveals himself to be not only a poet, but a black poet. This revelation transforms the poem from a general comment upon the human experience to personal reflection. Of all the incomprehensible actions of God, the most amazing for the poet to understand is that God made him both a poet and black.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The language of this sonnet is highly polished. The meter, iambic pentameter, offers a steady rhythm, which reiterates the poet’s own fixed belief in God. The end rhyming couplets create a list of significant words that resonate throughout the poem. In the first quatrain, the pairs contrast the nature of God and the plight of humankind (“kind” versus “blind”), and echo the poem’s essential question (“why” and “die”). Later in the poem, “immune” and “strewn” also contrast the conditions of God and human. The role of Tantalus and Sisyphus in the poem is also emphasized by their coupling in rhyme.

An important literary device in the poem is the catalog, or list, which Cullen employs in the first line to describe three qualities of God (“good, well-meaning, kind”). Lists also appear throughout the two quatrains, in which the poet not only offers a list of God’s mysteries—including the mole’s blindness, the mortality of humans, and the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus—but also uses a string of synonyms (“could tell,” “make plain,” and “declare”) to affirm God’s ability to provide explanations for these mysteries.

Anthropomorphism is a dominant feature of this poem. Tantalus’s fruit is associated with human...

(The entire section is 1,094 words.)