This sonnet was published in 1925 in the poet’s collection, Color. It discusses some of the most important questions known to humankind. One of these is, why does God allow so much suffering to occur? This poem takes the form of a sonnet. But, it is not a traditional one. It is neither a Shakespearean nor a Petrarchan sonnet. But, it does have elements of both. There’s also a slight turn, or volta, at the end of the poem.
Yet I Do Marvel 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!
Explore Yet Do I Marvel
‘Yet Do I Marvel’ by Countee Cullen discusses the nature of existence, including the dark and terrible things that God allows to happen.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker notes that he has no doubt that God is virtuous and that he has good intentions. He also has no doubt that if God lowered himself in order to argue over something trivial, he could do so. For example, the poet says, he could explain why moles in the dirt are blind or why humans eventually have to die. He also says that he is sure God could explain why Tantalus, an important figure from Greek mythology, suffered in the way he did. Or why Sisyphus was doomed.
But, these things are not for human beings to know. Human minds are too full of trivial concerns to understand the reasoning behind God’s decisions and creations. Even when some of these are terrible to behold. The speaker transitions in the first person narrative perspective at the end of the piece and tells the reader that he is filled with wonder. He expresses his wonder in regard to what God made him into—a Black man, and what he commanded him to do—sing (or write poetry).
Structure and Form
‘Yet Do I Marvel’ by Countee Cullen is a fourteen-line poem that utilizes elements of a Shakespearean sonnet. This means that in addition to being fourteen lines, the first eight lines of the poem rhyme in a pattern of ABABCDCD. The following six lines rhyme EEFFGG. This is more similar in structure to a Petrarchan sonnet.
The poem is also written and iambic pentameter. This means that the poet makes use of five sets of two beats in every line. The first one of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. This pattern continues throughout the poem.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions that appeal to the readers senses. These lines should allow the reader to easily visualize the subject matter the poet is describing. For example: “The little buried mole continues blind, / Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, the use of “God” and “good” in line one and “struggle” and “stair” in line eight.
- Enjambment: it occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three as well as lines five and six.
- Juxtaposition: can be seen when the poet features two contrasting images near one another in a poem. For example in the first stanza when the poet describes God and then moves on to talk about a mole, one of the smallest and seemingly least important creatures.
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,
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker notes that he has no doubt about God’s intentions. He knows that God is “well-meaning.” Although there are many dark things to behold in the world, all in all, God is kind. The speaker also believes that if God chose to, he could explain the nature of his creation.
For example, if he stooped to “quibble” or deal with small matters as human beings do, he could tell us why a tiny creature like a mole was made blind while burrowing through the dirt or why human beings who are made in his image, must die someday.
In these lines, the poet emphasizes the fact that God is beyond humanity’s understanding. He does not have the time or inclination to come to earth and explain the nature of creation to human beings. The next few lines explain why human brains are incapable of understanding God for themselves.
In this stanza, readers can also take note of numerous examples of literary devices. These include caesura, alliteration, and more.
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.
In the second quatrain of the poem, the speaker notes that if God came to earth, he could also look back on the heroes of Greek mythology and their tragic ends and explain to human beings why they lived the way they did. For example, the poet references Tantalus and Sisyphus.
The latter was forced to push a boulder unendingly up the hill, always to have it roll back down to the bottom. Tantalus was plagued with hunger and dehydration, a very brutal kind of suffering. If God wanted to, he could tell human beings exactly why these people were made to live such terrible lives.
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 speaker knows that God’s ways are “inscrutable” or impossible to understand for human beings. Human minds are “too strewn / With petty cares to slightly understand” what God intends. God’s acts and creations are far too complex, meaningful, and deep for simple human minds to grasp. Plus, human beings are always more concerned with the petty moments of their lives than the grand questions such as those asked in this poem.
The speaker reiterates in this final set of lines that much of God’s creation is “awful.” He uses repetition in the twelfth line of the poem to emphasize that God’s hand, or the acts he performs, can be “awful” or deadly and terrible to behold.
The poem ends on a lighter note, though, with the speaker noting that he is amazed and pleased by what God made him into. He’s living a “curious” or unusual life. He’s a poet, he’s Black, and God asked him to “sing” or write poetry.
The tone is passionate and direct. The speaker is unwavering in his statements about God and the nature of existence. He uses multiple examples and his explanation of why God acts the way he does and why human beings are so confused and continually troubled by the acts of God’s “awful” hand.
The title refers to the fact that despite the darkness in the world and all the horrors that God allows to happen, the speaker continues to marvel at it. He is still amazed by the nature of his own life and the complexity of creation around him.
The purpose of this poem is to discuss one of the most important questions that humanity has ever posited, why does God allow terrible things to happen? The speaker comes to the conclusion that humanity is never going to know. Even if God came down to earth and explained it clearly, human beings are too overwhelmed with their petty lives to comprehend the nature of existence.
The themes at work in this poem are faith, good, and evil. The speaker has a great deal of faith. No matter what he sees in the world, he is able to remember that God has a plan, that he is part of it, and that all the terrible things that happen, or evil things, are part of it as well. Plus, there are many good things to ponder, including the nature of his own existence.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Countee Cullen poems. For example:
- ‘Tableau’ – a powerful poem about two men, one black and one white, who appear to be romantic partners.
- ‘From the Dark Tower’ – a thoughtful poem about the Black experience. It suggests that there is a brighter future on the horizon.
- ‘Hey, Black Child’ – a moving and memorable poem that is directed to and dedicated to all the black children who have been taught by the world that their lives can’t amount to anything.