Countee Cullen's "The Wise"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

Painting of Countee Cullen


Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Wise"

Countee Cullen's "The Wise" consists of four three-line stanzas or tercets. The poem has the following unusual rime scheme: AAA BBB CCC DDD.

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

The poem's theme, expressed through a fantasy, suggests that the wise dead exist with immunity to the pain and anguish of living in the duality of an earthly life.

(Note: Countee is pronounced "Coun-tay"—not "Coun-tee." Sometimes written as "Countée," which is likely what the poet would have preferred.)

The Wise

Dead men are wisest, for they know
How far the roots of flowers go,
How long a seed must rot to grow.

Dead men alone bear frost and rain
On throbless heart and heatless brain,
And feel no stir of joy or pain.

Dead men alone are satiate;
They sleep and dream and have no weight,
To curb their rest, of love or hate.

Strange, men should flee their company,
Or think me strange who long to be
Wrapped in their cool immunity.

First Tercet: "Dead men are wisest, for they know"

The first tercet of Cullen's "The Wise" finds the speaker making a bizarre claim, "Dead men are wisest." However, the reader is certainly startled by such a claim, knowing that the dead bodies having been buried deep in the earth or burned to ashes no longer possess the ability to think. Does not being "wise" require the capacity to think and think rightly?

In order to assign any rational thought to this speaker's claims the reader must realize that the "dead" does not refer to the physical body but to the soul, which is, in fact, all wise and eternally so.

While the physical body becomes incapable of any activity including thinking, the immortal soul retains its infinite and eternal capacity for thought and activity.

However, the speaker then infuses another strange assertion, reporting that those wisest deceased "know / How far the roots of flowers go, / How long a seed must rot to grow."

Instead of taking the reader on a mystical soul journey, the speaker is in the process of merely concocting a fantasy.

To be able to follow this speaker's line of thought, the reader must engage the literary concept of suspending disbelief, the concept first put forth by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 as part of the doctrine of the Romantic Movement in literature.

So the speaker's fantasy gives the dead the ability to watch as seeds germinate and then begin to grow to produce their flowers, fruit, etc.

The obverse is that the living cannot see that activity. If the living man wanted to check out the stage of germination, he would have to dig up the seed, which, of course, would kill it.

Thus the speaker reasons that the ability to watch that process renders the dead wisest.

Remember not to think too hard on the issue or the logic will go right down the tubes on you. Keep that "disbelief" suspended while you take this journey with this speaker.

Second Tercet: "Dead men alone bear frost and rain"

The speaker then reports further support for this claim that the dead are the wisest: they can tolerate with equanimity the opposites that plague the living. The cold of frost brings them no irritation, and neither does the rain, for which they need no umbrellas.

Furthermore, the dead are never disturbed by any earthly annoyances. They are not prone to the passions that living hearts and minds suffer, because they "feel no stir of joy or pain."

Third Tercet: "Dead men alone are satiate"

Unlike the living who are so often dissatisfied with their lot, "[d]ead men alone are satiate." Again, the duality of earthly life does not interfere with their "sleep and dream." They need not bear the weight of suffering caused by "love or hate."

Fourth Tercet: "Strange, men should flee their company"

In the fourth tercet, the speaker then makes what literally would again be a startling claim: he reports that he thinks it is "strange" that people do not enjoy the company of the dead.

The speaker has offered evidence that supports his claim that being dead is a pretty cool thing because they do not have to suffer the miseries of the living, so the reader can readily agree that he has made being dead sound inviting.

But then finally the speaker offers a chilling admission: not only does he think it is strange that people "flee [the] company" of the dead, he also thinks it strange that people fail to understand why the speaker wishes he were dead.

The speaker's logic seems infallible, and he does not put his wish in such pedestrian terms but avers he "long[s] to be / Wrapped in their cool immunity." He just wishes he could somehow shed the trials of duality and live replete with that "cool immunity."

Likely, he would prefer to do so while living, but because such is not the case, he insists that being dead is pretty cool and oh, how wise one becomes! Does such logic render suicide an option?

Reading of Cullen's "The Wise"

For a reading of this poem, please visit: The Wise - Poem by Countee Cullen

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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