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Countée Cullen's "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Countée Cullen

Introduction and Text of "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks"

After Jesus was sentenced to be crucified, the Roman soldiers placed the cross on Jesus' soldiers and directed him to carry the burden to the place of crucifixion. Poets often inhabit the persona of a historical character in order to explore a possible answer to the question, "what if more were known about this character?" or to fulfill a spiritual longing associated with a character's possibility.

The speaker in Countée Cullen's "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks" identifies himself as Simon of Cyrene, a Greek province, part of which is now in modern day Libya. At some point, according to the three aforementioned accounts, the cross was transferred to Simon, who carried it some portion of the distance. That is all that is known about Simon, with the exception that the Gospel of Mark says Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus, but nothing is known about those sons. Such a mysterious character offers a blank slate upon which a poet can compose a tantalizing drama. Cullen's poem offers this drama in four riming quatrains, each with the rime scheme, ABAB.

Countée Cullen was born May 30, 1903, in Louisville, Kentucky, according to his widow, Ida Mae Cullen, while other accounts place his birth in New Orleans and Maryland. The poet was likely aware of Ridgely Torrence's 1917 play titled Simon of Cyrene, in which the black actor Paul Robeson performed in the role of Simon.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Simon The Cyrenian Speaks

He never spoke a word to me,
And yet He called my name;
He never gave a sign to me,
And yet I knew and came.
At first I said, "I will not bear
His cross upon my back;
He only seeks to place it there
Because my skin is black."

But He was dying for a dream,
And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.

It was Himself my pity bought;
I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought
With bruise of lash or stone.

Reading of "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks"

Commentary

Virtually nothing is known about Simon of Cyrene. He is mentioned in three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke yet omitted by John.

First Quatrain: Carrying the Cross

He never spoke a word to me,
And yet He called my name;
He never gave a sign to me,
And yet I knew and came.

The first line of the first quatrain reveals the fact the Simon had not met Jesus prior to carrying the cross for Him. But although they had never literally conversed, the Christ has called Simon. The mystical nature of Jesus the Christ had called Simon to this particular place at this special time so that he could take part in this momentous occasion. Despite the fact that Simon has had no prior contact with Jesus on the physical plane, he becomes aware of the mystical contact that had motivated him to journey from Cyrene to Jerusalem to be washed in the blood, quite literally, of Christ his Savior.

Second Quatrain: Race and Racism

At first I said, "I will not bear
His cross upon my back;
He only seeks to place it there
Because my skin is black."

The speaker reports that he was reluctant to carry the cross when first commanded to do so. While there is no evidence of the race of Simon, the speaker is thus free to impute any race to him that he chooses. Because the speaker has been created by a black poet, he assigns Simon to the Negroid race in order to point the finger of racism at the Roman soldier. American poets were and still are sensitive to the era of slavery that existed in his country before the bloody Civil War (1861-1865) ended that institution.

Third Quatrain: Deep Spiritual Purpose

But He was dying for a dream,
And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.

Simon then, however, implies that he relented and took up the cross because he became aware that Jesus "was dying for a dream." Simon also sees that Jesus "was very meek," and Jesus the Christ had a deep spiritual light in His eyes that drew people and urged "[m]en to journey far to seek." Simon is realizing that his journey entails a deep, spiritual purpose beyond his original reason for journeying to Jerusalem.

Fourth Quatrain: Soul Attraction

It was Himself my pity bought;
I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought
With bruise of lash or stone.

Simon realizes that the soul of Jesus Christ has attracted him and now has made him feel deep "pity" for the despicable way this Holy Personage is being treated. Simon realizes that by carrying the cross for Christ and becoming aware of the profound nature of Christ's mission, his simple act will do more to help spread Christ's holy words than all the Romans could do in torturing the body of this blessed avatar.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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