Themes and Meanings
The strong mood of religious reflection in “Yet Do I Marvel” stems in large part from the central position of the Christian church in the culture of African Americans. Intensity of religious fervor and a vivid sense of divine anthropomorphism are common themes in the poetry of black American poets.
A second important theme for Cullen is his race. Blackness is a focal point of the poem. It is the last of a series of imponderables of the human condition. On the one hand, the poet’s black skin is included in the same category as the blindness of the mole or the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus. It is another example of the mysterious ways of a God who inexplicably made humans of different skin color. On the other hand, the blackness of the poet is a source of pride, a gift of that almighty Creator whose ways are always right. Thus, Cullen, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance in the early part of the twentieth century, was asserting the beauty of black skin long before the Civil Rights movement made black pride more widespread later in the century.
At the same time, Cullen’s experience as a black man is set in the context of his role as a poet. He is a poet made black, not a black man made a poet. Like his black skin, Cullen’s poetic talent is a mysterious source of both pain and joy. This poet who fashions a highly polished poem filled with sophisticated allusion is, at the same time, a member of an oppressed race often denied the opportunity to acquire such erudition and poetic skill.
Indeed, Cullen emphasizes the involuntary nature of his poetry. He did not choose to be a poet any more than he chose to be black. It was God who made him both. It is God who commands him to sing. The poet cannot help himself any more than he could change the color of his skin. The source of his poetic power is divine and lies outside him. While some poets locate this source in nature or in the personal subconscious, Cullen attributes this power to the Supreme Being who dominates this poem. Cullen’s insistence upon the divine inspiration of the poet is appropriate in a poem that combines themes from classical and biblical sources, for both traditions affirm the ability of supernatural beings to speak through humans. The Greeks called these deities of inspiration Muses, while the biblical God inspires prophets with warnings for humans.