Countee Cullen's "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks"

Updated on October 6, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Countee Cullen



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 Countee 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 these 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.

Countee 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.

First Quatrain: "He never spoke a word to me"

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: "At first I said, 'I will not bear'"

The speaker reports that he was reluctant to carry the cross when first commanded to do so. While there 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: "But He was dying for a dream"

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: "It was Himself my pity bought"

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.

Reading of Cullen's "Simon the Cyrenian Speaks"

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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