The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

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 characteristics through words like “fickle” and “baits.” God’s humanity is also very strong. Cullen’s Supreme Being is not only identified with traditional masculine personal...

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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.

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

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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.

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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.