Read the first two lines of "Yet Do I Marvel" out loud (we did). What do you hear? A lot of T and D sounds, right? Let's be more specific: "doubt", "not", "God", "good", "kind", "And", "did", "stoop", "to", "could", and "tell". This is called consonance, or the repetition of the same consonant sound. Sure, T and D aren't exactly the same, but our mouths make the same shape when we say those letters. It's almost like a rhyme of sorts, but not quite.
Great, but what's the point? Why would Countee Cullen want so many similar sounds so close together? One reason may be because his name is a great example of alliteration, but more likely it's because he's creating a steady rhythm in his lines. The thud of that T and that D link the words together like a sonic chain, and they also mimic a sense of certainty. It's almost like those sounds are little walls holding up the words. There's a confidence there, like the sound of someone marching in boots. In this way, the sound of the words mimics the meaning; at the beginning of the poem, the speaker is declaring his certainty about God's goodness. Not only the meaning of the words, but the sounds of the words, get this message across.
There are several other examples of consonance in this poem. Can you find them? Remember the letters of the word don't have to be the same to have the same sound (for example: "quibble" and "could" both have that hard "c" sound). How do they create a rhythm in the poem, and do their sounds mirror the poem's message?
But that's not all. Cullen actually employs several different sonic techniques in this poem. Look at the first half of the first line again. "I doubt not God is good". Looks like there is a lot of O going on, no? What's fascinating is that not only is there consonance at play here, but assonance as well. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. The "ou" in "doubt," the "o" in "not" and "God," and the double-O in "good" sound similar, right? That helps link the words together and reinforce their message. The speaker is saying he doesn't doubt God's goodness, right? Well, those words, "doubt," "not," "God" and "good" all sound alike, so again, their sound relationship emphasizes the speaker's message.
Countee Cullen does this throughout the poem. Shmoop doesn't want to have all the fun ourselves, so go through and look for repeated consonant and vowel sounds. Your ear already picked them up while you read, but do it again and you'll be surprised how often they pop up in this poem, and try to suss out how they enhance the poem's meaning as you find them.
The titles of poems are always curious little buggers, and in this case, the title appears in line 13 of the poem. So does the speaker have a stutter or is he running out of ways to sound poetic?
Neither, actually. "Yet Do I Marvel" is like the calling card of the whole poem. "Marveling" is the source of the speaker's inspiration. His wonderment about God leads him to wonder how God could "make a poet black," and yet, this uncertainty about life is what makes up the poem. It's like asking the question is the answer, in a way, and the speaker wants to make sure that's loud and clear.
One of the great things about this poem is that it doesn't really offer a "solution" to the speaker's problem. He's just sitting at his desk, writing, thinking, singing away in his sonnet, right? The poem tracks the speaker's thought process. So as he considers the paradox of a good God that allows harm in the world, the poem becomes that process of inquiring into the mind of God.
The best part about this is that while the speaker is trying to figure out this conundrum (why God would make a poet black during a time when America wasn't listening to black poets), he ends up writing a beautiful sonnet. It's like he's singing a song to God and the lyrics are, "why did you make me into someone who must sing (and boy, can I sing)?" The question becomes the song, and that's just downright marvelous.
And no, the speaker wasn't running out of poemy things to say in his sonnet. In fact, he's busting out his sonnet titling skills to the max. He may have titled his poem with a phrase from the poem because throughout the history of sonnets, many superstars have titled their sonnets after a line in the poem.
Or rather, a lot of sonnets were numbered or left untitled (Shakespeare, Elizabeth Browning, we're looking at you) and are referenced by a line from the poem. So this sonnet could be nodding to the greats. It's sort of like saying, "See, they did it, and I'm going to do it, too." So not only is the title a reference to the poem's main theme, but it's part of the classic volta, or turn, which exists in all sonnets, and it's a nod to sonnet gods of the past. Now that's a loaded title.
The funny thing about this sonnet is that there's no real location. In fact, there's no real action in the poem. It's more of an intellectual argument than an evening or a story. We're really just getting the speaker's voice reciting his poem out there in a galaxy of poem-outer-space. There aren't any details about sitting in a room, or staring at the trees, or walking down a city street.
But the poem takes place in a formal setting, so to speak. The sonnet form is like a setting for the speaker's mind to unravel his mediation about God, life, being black, and being a poet. That's a little abstract, sure, but it's the form of the poem that becomes like a vessel the speaker fills with his voice. This poem can't exist outside of its formal restraints, so that's sort of like the setting of the poem.
Don't forget this poem was written during the Harlem Renaissance, which can act as another kind of setting or context as we read it. Although the poem doesn't take place in Harlem, it is definitely concerned with the ideas of the Renaissance movement.
At its core, the Harlem Renaissance was a period in the early 20th century when the African American community in Harlem began to work for racial equality in America, both socially and artistically. The NAACP was born and across America, the African American community began to unite and promote black culture and civil rights through art, education, and social activism. Countee Cullen was one of the movement's poster boys, and his poetry, among the poems of other notable black poets like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, reflected the movement's ideals of racial equality.
Our speaker is a smart guy. He seems like someone you'd trust and someone who has an inquisitive mind. Great dinner date, this guy, right? Okay, maybe not that, but he's definitely got big things on his mind, like God and the paradoxical nature of God's creation. That's not exactly idle chit-chat.
Okay, so he's a little intense, but he's also interesting to talk to. He's probably Christian because he's talking about God from the viewpoint of Christian tradition. He's wondering why, if God's so good, such terrible things exist in the world. He gives God the benefit of the doubt, and says that he's sure God could explain, but God doesn't bother explaining Himself to humans who are too busy with "petty cares." It's like he's saying, "Look, I know God's good, but what's up with all the bad stuff in life?"
He also likes to name drop Greek myths. Referencing Tantalus and Sisyphus works perfect because they're examples from life that seem to contradict God's goodness; however, they also mark the speaker's intellectual abilities. Our speaker knows his stuff and he's laying it down heavy while he tries to work out the unknowable nature of God. He wants us to know that he's educated and no doubt about it, we're listening to a well-informed speaker.
All this seems to lead up to his final statement at the end of poem. He's set up his audience in a way. He begins by sounding reasonable. Sure, God's good, and could explain the mysterious nature of suffering if He wanted to. But God is beyond all that, he says, and can't be bothered by our petty confusions.
Ah, but it's that strange paradox of knowing and not knowing that inspires the speaker. Even though he can't know, he still wonders how God could make black poets and inspire them to sing. During a time when black artists were just starting to be recognized and taken seriously in America, this transition was a great topic for the speaker.
So not only is he mister smarty pants laying down perfectly metered, rhymed sonnets that inquire about the nature of God's mind (whew!), but he's also concerned with race relations in America. Being black and a poet may have seemed like somewhat of a contradiction to white America at the time, and our speaker finds that crucial to his understanding of who he is and why he exists. Our speaker admits he can't know why God does what He does, but his desire to ask and wonder about God is what inspires him to sing, a.k.a. write awesome sonnets.
"Yet Do I Marvel" is definitely a poemy poem. We've got a traditional form, a strict rhyme scheme, some funny sounding syntax to keep the lines in iambic pentameter (check out "Form and Meter"), allusions to Greek mythology, a meditation on the nature of God's mind, and all of it packed into fourteen lines. So while this poem is awesome, it takes take a little bit of time to unpack. But once you trek the complicated formal terrain of this poem, you'll too be marveling at what's waiting for you at the end.
How do we know this sonnet is by Cullen? Let us Countee the ways:
There's a famous saying around poetry campfires that "form is content." That sounds smart, and maybe even interesting, but what does it mean and what does it have to do with "Yet Do I Marvel"? Pull out your snuggie and get comfy, because we're going to break it down for you. See, the way Cullen delivers his message through the poem is as important as what his message is. What he's saying and how he's saying it are so intertwined, they're almost indistinguishable.
Let's start with the basics. "Yet Do I Marvel" is a sonnet. There are basically two types of sonnets: the Italian and the English. We'll focus on the English sonnet, since that is the form Cullen uses. This sonnet is fourteen lines long (all sonnets are, traditionally), and employs a regular rhyme scheme. A rhyme scheme isn't a secret plot to overthrow the government—it's a strict pattern of end rhyme in a poem.
In this case, each pair of rhymed words is represented by a letter. Let's look at the first four lines (a.k.a. the first quatrain).
So, "kind" and "blind" rhyme, right? That rhyme would be represented by the letter A because it's the first rhyme. And since "why" and "die" rhyme, they would be represented by the letter B because they're the second rhyme that appears in the poem. Every time a new rhyming sound appears, a new letter is assigned to that rhyme. Here's a breakdown of the rhyme scheme with the rhyming words that appear at the end of each line:
So that's part of the form, but how is it content? Look at which words Countee Cullen rhymes in this poem. For example, he rhymes "kind" with "blind," right? Those two words contradict each other in the poem. The speaker says God is "kind" but then gives an example of suffering: the "blind" mole. So, just like there's a paradox between God's kindness and the unfortunate blindness of the mole, Countee Cullen rhymes two contradictory words to reinforce the speaker's confusion. Make sense? Now it's your turn to go through the rest of the rhymes and see what you can uncover. You'll be a sonnet pro in no time.
Like all traditional sonnets, this one is written in iambic pentameter. An iamb is a metrical foot that consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable—daDUM. Pentameter just means that there are five of these feet, all in a row. Look at the first line of the poem. We'll put the stressed syllables in italics and slashes between each foot:
I doubt/not God/is good,/well-mean/ing, kind
Hear it? It goes daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. That's a perfect line of iambic pentameter, right there in the flesh. And for much of the poem, the meter stays just that perfect. Countee Cullen measured out his poem perfectly. He wanted an exact sonnet, but why?
One reason may be because he was writing during the Harlem Renaissance. He was a popular poet back in the day and one of the major figures of the movement. By writing formal poetry, he was, in a sense, showing the world that African American writers were as talented as all the white sonneteers (writers of sonnets) throughout history.
Not all the Harlem Renaissance poets felt the same way. Langston Hughes, for example, bucked the system and wrote in free verse and blues forms as an attempt to resist the white culture of poetic tradition. However, Cullen embraced that tradition by writing sonnets but infused them with nontraditional subject matter, like race and religion. He showed the world what should have been obvious already—that black poets are as intelligent and capable as the white poets of the past, but he did so while writing about issues that were contemporary and unique to black culture in America.
In this way, he owned the old school forms with a new school vibe. Cullen's conscious choice to write a sonnet becomes a part of his message. Just like the speaker is asking God why He made a poet black in a world that doesn't respect black poets, Cullen is writing a traditional sonnet to say, "See, black poets are as talented and intelligent as the white poets who came before, so we deserve to be heard." The form becomes the message, and that message is loud and clear.
This matches up with the last two lines of the poem, right? Typically, the last two lines of an English sonnet are considered the volta, and summarize the poem's theme. The volta in "Yet Do I Marvel" marvels at God making "a poet black, and bid him sing." Likewise, Cullen is a black, Harlem Renaissance poet writing a sonnet (sonnet means "little song"), so take that, poetry establishment.
Although the speaker gives God kudos that He could explain everything about life, the poem also revolves around the speaker's awareness of unanswerable paradoxes in life. At least, unanswerable to us small-brained humans. This paradox continues throughout the poem and the speaker eventually uses his lack of understanding as a source of wonderment when he says he marvels that God makes "a poet black."
Although we don't necessarily get images of God in this poem, the speaker uses his belief in God's goodness as a building block for his argument that there are things in life that aren't always easily explained. One of those things is a good God who is immune to our cares and who has an "awful mind" and an "awful hand." Although this image of God is a bit abstract, it's a vital component of the speaker's thoughts about his own identity.
One thing Cullen can't resist is throwing in a few classical allusions in his poem. He's going way back to Greek mythology and throwing Sisyphus and Tantalus in the mix, but why? We already know they're both symbols of never-ending struggle and play into the paradox of God creating a world full of suffering, but that's not all they're good for. Cullen references Greek mythology to reinforce his education and talent as a poet. Just like traditional white poets in the past made allusions to Greek myths in their poems, Cullen does the same as if to say, "See, I can do it, and I'm black." He's adopting the mode of traditional poets to prove a point, and he proves it well.
Uncertainty is at the heart of "Yet Do I Marvel." In fact, the second word of the poem is "doubt." Even though he says, "I doubt not," the word (it falls on the stressed syllable of the first metrical foot, so it must really matter) rings in the first line. He continues this clever wordplay throughout, always choosing words that will reinforce the uncertainty of the speaker.
Cullen keeps it real formal and real tasteful the whole time. We're talking God, race, and goodness here, and not much else.