Countee Cullen's poetry was extremely motivated by race. He produced poetry that celebrates his African American Heritage, dramatizes black heroism, and reveals the reality of being black in a hostile world. In "Harlem Wine," Cullen reveals how blacks overcome their pain and rebellious inclinations through the medium of music (Shields 907). James Weldon Johnson said that Cullen was always seeking to free himself and his art from these bonds (Shields 905). In "Yet Do I Marvel," Cullen raises questions about the motivation God might have had in making a poet black in bidding him sing in a world that is fundamentally racist and that does not readily accept the creative work of African Americans (Shackleford 1013). Poems such as "Heritage," "The Black Christ," The Shroud of Color," "The Litany of the Dark People," and "Pagan Prayer" are the product of a writer who cannot reconcile his blackness (Early 170-171).
Cullen also used a lot of lyricism in his poetry to express his emotions. In his scholarly book of 1937, Negro Poetry and Drama, Sterling A. Brown, whose poems and essays continue to exert formidable influence on the black American culture, remarked that Countee Cullen's poetry is "the most polished lyricism of modern Negro Poetry." "Yet Do I Marvel," displays the poet during one of his most intensely lyrical, personal moments (Shields 905). There is certain simplicity in the lyricism of Cullen, showing his indebtedness to William Wordsworth's "language of the common man." Darwin Turner has commented that "Heritage" concerns the lyric cry of a civilized mind which cannot silence the memories of Africa that thrill the blood, of a heart which responds to rain (Shackleford 1014). Many of Cullen's most conventional lyrics also take on added dimensions when read as further orchestrations of his persistent blending of joy and suffering (Primeau 377).
Christianity is also a major theme in Cullen's literary work. In some of his greatest poems, he contrasts paganism with Christianity. He realizes his own pagan inclinations and cannot overcome them despite his commitment to a Christian worldview (Shackleford 1012). His poem "Black Magdalen" is about "black magdalens" that are people who hide their pain and wrap their wounds in pride. Unlike Mary Magdalene, they do not have Christ to defend them against the self righteous, judgmental "chaste clean ladies," so they must fend for themselves. This poem, like many other Cullen works, demonstrates his sympathy and identification with the outcast and his criticism of judgmental and provincial Christians. Jean Wagner asserts that "The Black Christ" is a "masterly reconstruction of the poets inner drama," the conflict between disbelief and faith. Wagner argues that the poem reflects Cullen's own reconciliation with Christianity (Shackleford 1013-1016). Cullen's chief problem has been that of reconciling a Christian upbringing with a pagan inclination; this became his pose (Early 170).
The form is very definite in most of Cullen's work. The Petrarchan form is suggested in the rhyme scheme of "Yet Do I Marvel." The first two quatrains rhyme abab,cdcd in perfect accord with the Shakespearean scheme. The poem is also essentially divided into the octave, wherein the problem is stated, and the sestet, in which a resolution is attempted. The poem begins with the assertion that "I doubt not God is good" and then proceeds to reveal that the speaker actually believes just the opposite to be true, "I do doubt God is good." The irony of these lines also adds an accent on the form of the poem. In "The Black Christ," the ballad stanza of the three quatrains rocks with rhythm, repeating Cullen's immensely successful performance in another long narrative poem, "The Ballad of the Brown Girl." In the poem, "From the Dark Tower," the octave is arranged into two quatrains, each rhyming abbaabba, while the sestet rhymes ccddee. The octave of this poem states the poem's problem in an unconventional...
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