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Analysis of Poem 'Yet Do I Marvel' by Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen and a Summary of 'Yet Do I Marvel'

  • Yet Do I Marvel is a traditional sonnet that deals with the awesome and awful power of God in relation to the challenging lives of humans and animals. God can never truly be understood by the human mind but there is still a need to marvel at how certain things turn out.

Countee Cullen, born in 1903, graduated from New York University in 1923 and had his first book of poems published in 1925, Color. Being black, he soon got to be a part of the Harlem Renaissance.

By all accounts, he was a talented student and a quick learner and went on to study at Harvard before turning his attention to writing and teaching.

He wrote articles, became an editor and had a novel published in 1932, One Way to Heaven, which had a lukewarm reception in the literary world. He became better known for his traditional lyric poetry.

'If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be Poet and not Negro Poet....I shall not write of Negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda...'

He did write on African American topics from time to time but preferred not to be overtly political.

Yet Do I Marvel is written from a first-person perspective. The speaker expresses from the opening line his faith in the goodness of God and then attempts to put into context just why it is that God's actions are beyond the understanding of mere mortals.

God could explain why the life of the blind mole is such a challenge, the reason why our flesh is corruptible, the struggles of mythological characters - life can be hard - but to expect an explanation from God is futile. The human brain could not comprehend.

For all God's omnipotence, the speaker is still struck by the fact that God made him a poet, and a black one at that. So in the end, this sonnet is something of a celebration of the possible in life.

'Yet Do I Marvel'

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!

Analysis of the Poem

'Yet Do I Marvel' is a sonnet that focuses on the essential paradox of a good God's divinely created life on earth and the puzzling challenges that entails. It starts with a positive premise, gives examples that might question, and concludes with a little bit of wonder.

The first line introduces the reader to a speaker who is faithful to his God and does not question his goodness and kindness. Should there be a need for an explanation from God concerning the struggles life faces on earth, then this would happen.

And in lines three and four, God could tell about the blind mole underground, about why we're made of fallible flesh and bone; he could spell out in simple terms just why we succumb to temptation and endless struggle.

Lines five to eight: the allusions to Greek mythological characters - Tantalus and Sisyphus - bring a historical context to the challenges we face that are sometimes hard to bear, seemingly set in motion by a God that must surely be cruel and heartless.

But the actions of God can never be truly understood, there is no way of explaining them or writing them down as questions and answers in doctrinal form (catechism).

The human mind can only understand so much, it is incapable of grasping what lies within the mind of God, awesome thing that he is.

So, the first twelve lines of the sonnet are essentially saying that, from the standpoint of the speaker, God is moral, despite the awful things that happen on earth; he doesn't need to explain away his actions because we couldn't comprehend him anyway.

In the end, the couplet concludes that all there is wonder. The speaker marvels at the fact that God has granted him, a black man, the gift of poetry (has bid him sing!), that he is able to express himself through words.

What Is The Meter of the Poem?

'Yet Do I Marvel' is a traditional 14-line sonnet with iambic pentameter the dominant meter (metre in British English) and consistent full end rhyme as the norm. It is split into an octave (eight lines) and a quatrain (four lines) before the couplet concludes. In this sense, it is closer to what is known as the English sonnet in form.


This sonnet is dominated by iambic pentameter, lines with 10 syllables and a stress pattern of da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM:

I doubt / not God / is good, / well-mean / ing, 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,

So the majority of the lines are steady and have a familiar rhythm, falling then rising, just like in ordinary speech. The line that doesn't conform is line 13:

Yet do / I mar / vel at / this curi / ous thing

Here we have an opening trochee foot (DUM-da) or inversion, which puts emphasis on the first word, so slightly slowing the reader down, before the regular iambic takes over again.


All of the end rhymes are full and the rhyme scheme is ababcdcdeeffgg. This scheme is traditional up to the last six lines, which are three couplets, fully rhymed.

So, for example: kind/bind and why/die are full end rhymes.


Black Poets of the United States, Jean Wagner, Uni of Illinois, 1973

© 2018 Andrew Spacey