Poetry is often meant to be smooth, flowing, pleasing to the ear and the mind. To achieve this effect, many poets use different poetic techniques to help convey the meanings of their poetry. In the sonnet, Yet Do I Marvel written by Countee Cullen, many different features of poetry is used. In this essay, I will discuss the relationship between the meanings and the theme Cullen tries to convey in his sonnet and the techniques of metaphors, both religious and non-religious, allusions to Greek mythology, different rhyme schemes and repetition that he uses.
In his sonnet, Cullen uses strong themes of religious metaphors while adding many non-religious metaphors at the same time. The continuing theme throughout the sonnet is the mysteriousness of God, and how He is unwilling to share the secrets of the universe by answering the speakers questions. Cullen begins with stating that his belief in God is that God is good natured, I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind, (Line 1). The first line briefly makes your mind question the sentence while you experience the starting of the theme.
Using different metaphors, Cullen vividly expresses his confusion of what the purpose of his existence is and why God does what he does. And did He stoop to quibble could tell why / The little buried mole continues blind, / Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die, (Lines 2 4). In these lines, Cullen clarifies his position with God in stating that his questions are but quibble to God, thus putting himself far below God.
Cullen uses the metaphor of the mole to represent how he is blind to the reasoning of Gods actions, while at the same time questioning God of why a little mole continues to live blind. In the next line, Cullen uses a biblical metaphor when mentioning flesh that mirrors Him as it is in the bible that it states God created Adam in His image. Cullen refers this flesh to be humans and questions God for the purpose of death. Using these metaphors, Cullen creates a more vivid image in the imagination than he would if he were to question God outright.
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die, carries many more metaphorical images than Why do we die? does, and that is one of the efforts and understanding Cullen is most likely trying to convey in his sonnet. Cullens brilliant use of allusions in his sonnet not only helps to emphasize his theme, but also reinforces his metaphors and clarifies interpretations of his sonnet. Allusions of Greek mythology provide excellent images for Cullens questions as the mythology seem like metaphors themselves.
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus / Is baited by the fickle fruit, (Lines 5 6). In Greek mythology, Tantalus was one of Zeuss non-immortal sons who became immortal by dining with the Gods. However, after telling his friends the secrets of the Gods, he was punished by being place up to his chin in water that he could not drink, and with fruit in sight that he could not reach. Cullen uses Tantalus as an allusion to question God about why humans are given grace of the Gods/God, but are kept from the fruit of actually being divine-beings.
By saying, Make plain, he wishes for God to tell him in terms that he could understand. Again, the speaker makes clear his position relative to that of God. declare / If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus / To struggle up a never-ending stair. The second example of allusion that Cullen uses is the story of Sisyphus, who was the king of Corinth and for his efforts in trying to avoid death and Hades, he was condemned eternally to roll a huge boulder uphill.
Cullen uses Sisyphus to make a connection to this Mortal Coil we all endure. We all work and go about our daily lives, but towards what end? What is the point of our work and our lives? Is it out of caprice that God has done this to us? Did God doom us to this on a whim? Again, in Cullen’s view, God has the answers, but isn’t sharing them. The endless and pointless labour of Sisyphus is a reflection of everyday human lives in the speakers view, and God is not willing to share the knowledge Cullen thirsts for.
By using Greek mythology allusions, Cullen creates the images of an entire story with just a few words. Cullen effectively uses rhyme schemes and repetition to help convey the meanings of his sonnet. Using couplets for the first eight lines and then doublets for the last six stresses the mood and attitude of the speaker. Although the theme of God having answers to the speakers questions but not sharing them remains strong through the entire sonnet, the mood and types of questions of the speaker changes.
They change from a positive view on God and general questions of existence to a more serious mood and acceptance that Gods ways are Gods ways. Inscrutable His ways are, and immune / To catechism by a mind too strewn / With petty cares to slightly understand (Lines 9 12). In these lines the speaker is saying that God’s ways are beyond question and that his mind that’s “strewn with petty cares” can’t “slightly understand” how God, who is supposed to be perfect and infallible, can at the same time be so “awful” and do, or let happen, such “awful” things.
Wide spread starvation, poverty, war, disease, and death are all examples of these awful things that could be attributed to God by the speaker. Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing! (Lines 13 14). In closing the speaker ponders the irony and the juxtaposition of his fate: God has given him a life, or at least a view of life, that is “black,” and at the same time God made him a poetsomeone who is supposed to study the world around him and express what he or she sees in words and verses.
Cullen marvels at God’s decision to have someone tell the world of the “blackness which he sees. In this case, the person God has decided to tell the world is the speaker himself and Cullen contemplates what possible motivation would God have for doing this. In using constant repetition of the theme, Cullen allows the theme to clearly stand out and show itself without having to hide behind words with deeper meanings. This is effective for emphasizing the theme and ensuring that it is easily understandable.
Metaphors, allusions, rhyme scheme and repetition are all techniques that Cullen used in his sonnet to improve the understanding and assist the interpretations of the poetry. His use of metaphors painted pictures in the mind while his allusions told stories with merely a few words. Rhyme scheme and repetition both assisted in the emphasis of the theme and worked exceptionally well. It is in works such as Cullens Yet Do I Marvel that poetry and philosophy come together in a warm embrace.