Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
- There's a slight shift here in the speaker's tone. For the first 8 lines, we're given examples that seem to contradict God's goodness. But in line 9 (see, Shmoop rhymes sometimes, too) the speaker returns to describing his thoughts about God himself.
- Also, since we know we're reading a sonnet we should keep our eyes peeled for a volta, or shift. This poem just swerved a little in tone and we want to be sure to stay on track.
- God is "inscrutable" and "immune" to "catechism." The speaker is repeating that God is perfect and beyond criticism. "Mind" in these lines refer to human minds.
- Also, it's time for a new rhyme (oops, we did it again). "Immune" rhymes with "strewn" so the speaker is sonically linking a description of God with a description of the human mind. He's drawing a connection between contradictory ideas in this couplet. In other words, God doesn't respond to our minds that are caught up in trying to understand Him—he's too busy being inscrutable and immune.
- And let's not forget the rhyme scheme shift: instead of rhyming every other line, now the rhymes follow each other immediately, in heroic couplets.
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels his awful hand
- The speaker continues to describe why humans can't understand God. He says humans are too concerned with "petty cares." We're worried about the small things, and God is above all of that. Like, God doesn't sweat the small stuff, but because we do, we can't understand "His ways."
- But if God is good, why does the speaker say he has an "awful brain" and "awful hand"? That's a little out of left field, right? The speaker could be describing God as awful, because although he knows God is good, life can seem hard. Remember all that stuff about the mole, dying, Tantalus, and Sisyphus? Yeah, so, God's good, but then God also seems awful at the same time.
- The speaker has also rhymed "understand" with "hand." Once again, he's pairing up opposite things, here. We can't "understand" God's "hand" but by rhyming those two words, the relationship between them is emphasized sonically.
- Of course, by now we know we're reading a sonnet and the speaker is staying true to form, putting in the requisite rhymes. Just like he was flashing his "I'm educated" cards by referencing Greek mythology, he's showing off his sonnet skills, too. Not bad for a human with petty cares, huh?
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
- Curtains. Here are the last two lines to close the whole show. And like all good sonnets, this one takes a "turn" at the end. The tone and direction of the poem swerve from what's been building in the previous 12 lines (don't roll your eyes at us for saying this again, but the "Form and Meter" section has more about the "turn" in sonnets. Check it).
- But wait, we already mentioned a volta happening in line 9, so what's going on here? It's possible this poem swerves twice. The last two lines here really flip the poem upside down and capitalize on all of the speaker's thoughts in the rest of the poem.
- No more grandiose abstractions or Greek myths; this guy is going with his own experience to close down the poem. The "I" is reintroduced from the first line, so we know we're getting the speaker's personal thoughts.
- He says he "marvels at this curious thing." So even though he knows God is good, and as a human, he can never understand God's ways, he still wonders why God would "make a poet black, and bid him sing!"
- The title is also repeated in this line. Why? It must be important if he's saying it twice, right? It could be that the speaker wants to emphasize these last two lines. Even though he's laid out an argument for the paradoxical, unknowable nature of God, he says that he still marvels at something he can't understand. Asking a question that can never be answered may be like rolling a huge rock up a never-ending hill, but it's the wonder in the speaker that inspires him.
- The last line of the poem encapsulates the speaker's wonderment. He says it's a "curious thing:/To make a poet black, and bid him sing!" So, the speaker can't know why God made him or why God inspires him to "sing," but this uncertainty is what fills him with a desire to "marvel." And for this speaker, "marveling" is like the hokey-pokey of life—to wonder is the source of his desire to sing.
- At least, that's part of what's it all about. This poem was also written during the Harlem Renaissance, so we know race is an important topic for this speaker. The African American community at that time, particularly in New York, was experiencing a resurgence of artistic expression.
- For this speaker, it could be that there is some "marvel" about being a "black" poet. Whereas African Americans were formally enslaved in the South, the turn of the century was a time to re-establish black identity in America. This new identity, as someone who is well educated and a sonnet-slinging superstar could be a point of wonderment for the speaker.
- On the other hand, the speaker is marveling at why a God who is so good could be so cruel as to make a poet black during a time when black expression was ignored. Why does God give black poets the gift of being able to "sing" in a world that ignores them? Gee, thanks a whole heap, God. And this bittersweetness is what has our speaker marveling all the way through the poem.
- In this final couplet, there's a hint of what Shmoop likes to call miraculous despair. Or is it despair at a miracle? Either way, the speaker's both lamenting his sad situation, and also marveling at the poetic gift God gave him. Ambiguous much?
- So let's recap. If we had to sum up the lines of this poem in plain English, Shmoop might say something like, Okay, God is totally good, and if he did bother explaining why he made moles blind, and torturously tantalized Tantalus, and made Sisyphus roll a stinkin' rock up a stinkin' mountain, he totally could. But he doesn't bother explaining, so we can't understand Him, what with our busy minds. So I'm left to marvel at how in the world he could have made me, a black guy, a poet. What gives?