Yet Do I Marvel – explication

I’ve always been a little bit sad that I didn’t get to have that college experience. So now it’s my time!! It’s different attending college when you’re 44…

School is starting – not just for my kids, but for me, too. I started school at Weber State University last spring. I joined the Marine Corps right after high school, walking away from several scholarships to pursue a different path, one that has blessed my life immeasurably! But I’ve always been a little bit sad that I didn’t get to have that college experience. So now it’s my time!! It’s different attending college when you’re 44 (and I’m sure I missed some fun stuff that I would have experienced at age 18) but it’s also pretty cool. I’m smarter than I was. I know more about the world. I’m more formed. And I care more about what I’m learning because I see and have experienced a broader context for it. Last semester, in my Intro to Lit class, we explicated sonnets – meaning explaining how the poet used words, punctuation, and poetic devices to add to the meaning of the poem. In honor of the start of school, I’ll share one of those today: Cullen’s sonnet followed by my explication.

Yet Do I Marvel – by Countee Cullen

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,

And did He stoop to quibble could tell why

The little buried mole continues blind,   

Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,

Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus

Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare   

If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus

To struggle up a never-ending stair.   

Inscrutable His ways are, and immune   

To catechism by a mind too strewn   

With petty cares to slightly understand   

What awful brain compels His awful hand.   

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:   

To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

The Song of a Black Poet – by Josie Hulme

Sixty years after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and forty years before the Civil Rights Act, Countee Cullen, an African-American poet, wrote “Yet Do I Marvel,” a sonnet imbued with the difficulty and confusion of a race unsure why their rightful place in American society continued to be denied them. Using his own story as a mirror for the rest of his race, Cullen assures the reader that God is good before ironically listing several examples that belie that assertive statement. However, in the last couplet, he ends his list with the most audacious of all God’s creations: a Black poet in a world that is just beginning to listen.

Although “Yet Do I Marvel” is not a classic romantic sonnet, it does follow the Shakespearean form with a slight change in the classic rhyming pattern of the last sestet, using, instead: e e f f g g. Though it has several exceptions, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. Cullen brilliantly uses the sonnet form to examine the tension between God’s “goodness” and the treatment of African Americans. On its scaffold, he both questions God, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, about His wisdom and builds a case for his own identity.

First, his use of a variety of gods is interesting. He starts with what, it could be assumed, is a reference to the Protestant God that was most prevalent in American society and among African-Americans at the time. Then he turns his attention to the Greek gods who cursed both Tantalus and Sisyphus in ancient mythology. Lastly, he uses the word “catechism,” which is most readily affiliated with the Catholic church. It is perhaps telling that he uses no African gods in this list of “good” things God has done, referencing only gods originally worshipped by Caucasians. Even though there is irony in his lengthy list of unfair things that a “kind” God has done, the reader can use the same logic to see Cullen calling his identity as a Black poet ‘godly’ in origin. He is, in essence, saying, ‘If these things listed in the poem are God’s creations despite their imperfections, then so am I.’

Cullen uses a number of poetic devices to accomplish this. The first quatrain is remarkable for its monosyllabism. In the first two lines, there are only two words with two syllables (“meaning,” “quibble”); the rest are single-syllable words. In fact, in the first forty syllables of the poem, there are only thirteen that are not single (“meaning,” “quibble,” “little,” “buried,” “continues,” “mirrors”). The first quatrain is also littered with spondees: “ uI /doubt /not /God” and “/well-/meanuing” and “/could /tell /why” as well as the powerful end to the first quatrain, “/Him /must /some /day /die.” Both of these—the abundance of monosyllables and spondees—naturally slows this first quatrain and allows time for the idea of an all-knowing, well-meaning God to settle firmly in the reader’s mind. Cullen’s use of the words “stoop” and “quibble” in the second line signify God’s greatness and majesty, showing He would need to bend low, or descend, to share His reasoning about such trivial issues with the speaker. The fourth line also reminds the reader that while humans may have been created in the image of God, they are far from Him in power.

The first quatrain contains three end-stopped lines and one line that, while enjambed, still has something of a natural pause at the end. In contrast, the second quatrain contains no end-stopped lines and has a caesura in its second line: “…by the fickle fruit, || declare.” Besides the three enjambed lines, only fourteen of the forty syllables in the second quatrain are monosyllables, almost opposite the first quatrain. Also, Cullen begins his ironic list of things God needs to explain slowly, with a humble “little buried mole.” Then, through the use of polysyllabic words and enjambment, he rushes—explodes!—into the second quatrain, as if the doom of Tantalus and Sisyphus is too horrible to dwell on. He uses emphatic words with harsh consonants like “tortured,” “baited,” “fickle,” “brute caprice,” “dooms,” “struggle,” and “never-ending” to create a dissonance that steps up the rhetoric. ‘A kind god?’ he seems to ask incredulously. ‘Are these words you would ascribe to a kind god?’

Another difference between the first and second quatrains is found in the use of poetic sound devices. While some are used in the first (“mirrors-must,” “day-die,” “not-God,” “mirrors-Him-must-some”), the second quatrain is drowning in them. Alliteration: “tortured-Tantalus,” “fickle-fruit,” “struggle-stair.” Assonance: “make-plain,” “baited-declare,” “struggle-up,” “never-ending,” Consonance: “fickle-declare,” “merely-brute-caprice,” Hiatus: “dooms-Sisyphus.” Both the first and third lines of the second quatrain end in a dactyl: “/Tanutaulus” and “/Sisuyuphus.” This change in the rhythm softens the reader’s feelings toward these unfortunate men. After the harsh, almost cacophonous, noise of the rest of the quatrain, we end these names with a whisper of reverence for ones who have unfairly garnered the wrath of the gods.

All of this is accomplished in one sentence, comprising the entire first octave. The third quatrain is another sentence, the first three lines enjambed; and the first line contains another caesura: “Inscrutable His ways are, || and immune.” This breaks the second sentence into two parts: the first, a simple statement about God, and the second, a far more detailed and perhaps sarcastic comparison between God’s mind and the speaker’s.

 Unlike the first and second quatrains, this one is almost even with mono- and polysyllabic words. It’s also an even mix of smooth and harsh sounds with very few sound devices. It feels as if the speaker is now acerbically sulky after his outburst in the second quatrain. The last line also repeats the word “awful.” The double meaning of that word, emphasized by the repetition, perfectly wraps up this poem. From the first line, with its small and certain words talking about God’s undoubted goodness and kindness, through the discordant and stormy middle, to the bitter and whiny end, the reader is left with a feeling of unbalance. What does the speaker believe? Is God awful, meaning extremely bad and terrible? Or is God awful, meaning solemnly impressive and inspiring awe?

The answer may be found in the last couplet’s opening word, “yet,” used as a coordinating conjunction showing contrast. It means “but” or “nevertheless,” effectively undoing the previous argument. Cullen’s sarcastic beginning statement, “I doubt not,” is thus transformed into one of admiration and astonishment, “I marvel.” The word “curious” connotes an inquisitive, childlike wonderment. These words, together with the uneven, perhaps childishly clumsy, meter of this line, “/Yet udo uI /maruvel uat uthis /curuious /thing:” bring a feeling of reverential awe, an almost bewildered amazement. The line ends with a colon, causing the reader to lean forward into the last line. Then, for the first time in his poem, Cullen brings up race as he offers us a glimpse into his life. After the rollercoaster ride he’s taken us on, he concludes his poem with the spondee “/bid /him /sing.” In effect, he says, ‘It is God’s command, and I dare not—cannot—stop the music.’ But he doesn’t end there. He adds an exclamation point, as if he can’t believe how lucky he is.

Cullen’s brilliant sonnet, “Yet Do I Marvel,” is more than a fine example of Harlem Renaissance poetry. It embodies the conflict, the questions, and the joy of being Black in America. He takes the reader on a whirlwind journey through faith, doubt, frustration, anger, blame, and bitterness, then on to delight and pleasure. He leaves the reader with a sense of respect and appreciation for Black fortitude as he walks away with a grin and a wink.

Ever After

With a sigh, I close my laptop. Life beneath its cover seems so much easier. Cleaner. The story ends, summed up in three little words: happily ever after. For a moment in time, everything makes sense.

The diarist, Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” I’m always surprised to find my characters saying things that I haven’t thought. I often read what they’ve said and think, “That’s deep. Thanks for sharing that thought with me. I hadn’t thought of it in that way before.” But of course, I must have. My fingers just typed it. It’s not actually my character saying something, it’s the quiet part of my brain that’s been busily chewing on a problem finally churning out the answer. I write to discover what I believe. I write to understand my life. I write to understand others’ viewpoints. I write to live. And I live to write. Life is an amazing adventure and I love to capture its shades and shadows in words.

Ever After – by Josie Hume

Story. It’s there, trembling on my fingertips, dancing in the front of my brain. I can glimpse greatness, but so far it’s ephemeral. A hollow outline waiting to be filled. My character stands before me, arms folded, head thrust forward. “So, tell me what to do.”

I scowl. “Be patient, I’m thinking.”

The blank page mocks me. Glowing white, the cursor blinking. On. Off. On. Off. Waiting for me to type something. Anything.

My fingers move. Haltingly. Words I know I’ll never keep. They feel like progress, anyway. Water to prime the pump. Okay, here we go. A little better, a little smoother. Still nothing brilliant, but the plot is moving forward. I know I’ll be able to come back and revise. Edit. Erase. But for now, I’m content to push forward.

And it is a push. A physical effort. Brute force.

Things are plodding along when suddenly I stall. There’s a word I’m looking for. A certain word. It feels vitally important to find it now. Now, while I know what I mean to say. I click on my Thesaurus and comb through hundreds of words. No, not that one. Close, but not quite.

Ah. There it is.

I sit back, pleased with myself until I realize Newton’s first law of motion is in place. I am an object at rest. I have lost all momentum. It’s uphill again. My character rolls her eyes. “You shouldn’t have stopped.”

I grind my teeth.

I start again. Forcing creation. Shoving my character around. Dragging her, kicking and screaming, where I need her. “Knock it off,” I demand. “Stop acting like a teenager!”

She flips me the bird.

I have to smile. She’s a rebel. She’s strong and smart, and exactly how I want to be. That’s what this is: two strong personalities fighting each other. One of us has to be the adult.

“Fine,” I say. “Then you do it.”

And she does.

Now it’s flowing. Now I’m not a writer—I’m a stenographer, a reporter. I’m watching and recording—language, inflection, action. My fingers are flying over my keyboard. It’s coming so fast words are misspelled, and punctuation is missing. But all the right words are there, on the page.

I can see my creation, the one who is me—part who I am, and part who I hope to be. Alive. Acting independent of me, the creator. I’ve taken a backseat. My creation is dictating things now. It’s not my book, it’s hers.


And then, finally, silence. Exhaustion. I have no idea how much time has passed while the movie in front of me played out, while my fingers raced to keep up with the action. But now the colors fade and time slows. Reality reasserts itself. Dinner still needs to be made. Kids need help with homework. The list of things I meant to do today is still waiting on the kitchen counter.

My character winks at me. “See you again tomorrow.”

With a sigh, I close my laptop. Life beneath its cover seems so much easier. Cleaner. The story ends, summed up in three little words: happily ever after. For a moment in time, everything makes sense.

My life is messier. I lose my omniscience and have to bumble my way through my own first-person present-tense story. It’s full of starts and stops, wrong decisions, and the endless minutiae of living.

Rarely greatness, but often goodness and kindness and laughter.

There’s no happily ever after in the real world. No way to skip the boring parts or know how it’s going to end. But even here, I’m still the writer. I decide what stays and what goes. And maybe the best story is just in front of me: here, today.

I’m on the edge of my seat.

Joyfully, crazily, excitedly ever after.

On The Lake

But the grandeur of this natural marvel isn’t the only reason I love it. I have come to realize that Lake Powell is more than just the sum of its parts.

I grew up going to Lake Powell every year. First with my mother’s aunt and uncle and cousins when the lake was first filling up, and then with my own Aunt when that first group got too big. (Who are we kidding? That group started out too big! But eventually, when all those cousins started having kids…) Now we go on alternating years with my sister and her family – and I’m so grateful for them for continuing the tradition for my own children. There’s no place like Lake Powell, and although the argument against the Glen Canyon dam is compelling and reading about the wonders that were buried when it was built breaks my heart, there’s still a love for the ease, enjoyment, and beauty of spending a week on the lake with family.

On The Lake

God was having a good day when He created Lake Powell. I am in awe of its beauty and stand in reverent gratitude for the men and women, both past and present, who have worked tirelessly to preserve and improve this incredible area. But the grandeur of this natural marvel isn’t the only reason I love it. I have come to realize that Lake Powell is more than just the sum of its parts. On this lake I have found

People as varied as the tumbled rocks, separate but together, a strong anchorage

Laughter as endless as the starry sky

Friendship as steady as the red rock cliffs

Love as deep as the river

Family as constant as the waves lapping at the sand beach, never-ending and eternal

Wonder as fantastical as the winding corridors

Faith as peaceful as the morning water

Joy as bright as the sun

%d bloggers like this: