Countee Cullen Collected Poems
How Society Compensates for Spirituality
Within T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” the influences of society and how it can affect the general personality of the public is reflected in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel”. Eliot uses the contradiction of hollow and stuffed men to set up how men have been affected by their societies, the contrast making them devoid of emotion and numb. Their insubstantial filling being the logic and principles that society has provided. Societal influences have taken the place of spiritual transcendence resulting in a lack of understanding of the nature of God and a movement towards the material world. Fitzgerald expands on this by having his characters reflect traits from Eliot’s poem while Cullen’s poem makes a statement about his society by talking about the spiritual presence of God and using it to explain what seems to be his overall view of his fellow man. The overall statement that is made of society in “The Hollow Men” seems to be that it cannot take the place of God and this can be found in both Fitzgerald’s and Cullen’s pieces.
Eliot uses a children’s song to reflect the cyclical nature of society and the world. By saying “Here we go round the prickly pear” it is implied that events will inevitably repeat themselves (Eliot 252). This is supported by Fitzgerald by the nature of Nick Carraway. Nick went to war so that he could escape his past but now that he has returned he has returned to what he was trying to initially escape. He decides to get a job that reflects his past and states, “Everybody I knew was in the bond business, so I supposed it could support one more single man” (Fitzgerald 3). Nick returns from the war restless; and even though he is trying to settle down and gain a sense of the past that he tried to escape by going to war he is still trying to see the world in a military view. He even states that when he returned to the East that he wanted the world to be uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever which reflects a militaristic view (Fitzgerald 2). Nick wants to establish a sense of stability in his society and bring his past back to the forefront of his future in this way. Another way in which Fitzgerald displays the cyclical nature of Eliot’s poem is with his character of Gatsby. Gatsby went to war to essentially create a new identity and this can be represented by the symbol of the light at the end of Daisy’s dock. The light is green as almost a representation of new life, growth, and the money that it took to turn Gatsby into a new man (Fitzgerald 21). When Gatsby returns from the war he spends all of his efforts with this new persona to win Daisy who is a love from his past (Fitzgerald). He can’t escape the dream of his past that perpetuated into his future and ultimately is killed because of it.
The fact that Fitzgerald’s characters are continuously trying to regain a sense of their past suggests how they can’t seek to delve further into their society without the understanding of who they are in the past. Also since the past may repeat itself if the characters lack an understanding of their past it shows that the same mistakes can be made. Nick himself can’t seem to handle his own families transgressions in the past and seeks to not repeat them. Trying to solve them is part of why he goes to war since his Uncle has gotten out of the war by sending someone in his stead (Fitzgerald 3). Even Gatsby though he is essentially pursuing a part of his past, is also trying to escape a part of his past, and in the end it is proven that he cannot escape his past as one of the few people that attend his funeral is his father (Fitzgerald).
“The Hollow Men” uses the images of eyes that are not there, the multifoliate rose, prayers to broken stone, a broken column, stone images, and a fading star to paint a view of the broken spirituality in his society (Eliot). The column represents a structure that has fallen and the fading star can symbolize the north star but by saying that it is fading it implies that the spirituality is fading from the world. Fitzgerald expands on this with Nicks view of the parties that he attends. The parties can represent the spirituality that the characters are unable to achieve. They let loose during these gaudy displays however Nick is unable to fully appreciate the parties. He essentially has to get drunk to have any enjoyment at all and then claims that it was his second time ever getting drunk. The fact that Nick doesn’t really enjoy the parties, describing them by saying “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” suggests that he cannot achieve a level of transcendentalism because he is held back by his society (Fitzgerald 35). His focus is completely on the material of the party when he is with the lower class. His first party with Gatsby he seems to get a feel for the atmosphere by stating, “I had taken two finger-bowels of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound” (Fitzgerald 47). Again it is implied that to truly let loose and appreciate the feel of the party rather than the look of it Nick has to drink.
Another way in which Fitzgerald displays the spirituality from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” is by directly pulling T.S. Eliot into his novel as the character of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg by having his eyes represent those of Gods. At one point the character of Wilson states “God sees everything,” while looking at the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg which directly applies the name of God to the eyes of the billboard (Firzgerald 160). In “The Hollow Men” the eyes are no longer there which implies that though they see they are no longer comprehending, they are detached from God perhaps because they have fully embraced society. Fitzgerald brings in these eyes and has them overlook The Valley of Ashes which references just how detached his society is.
Though the eyes are present in Fitzgerald’s novel they aren’t really overlooking anything, just ashes and they’ve dimmed. So as the character of Wilson says, God sees everything but at this point the people are so detached from God that there is nothing to see. The Valley of Ashes itself can also represent the dead cactus land that Eliot discusses in his poem (251). This would imply that the characters that live there, such as Wilson, are the scarecrows that Eliot describes. Wilson’s personality is described like that of the hollow men as well, he is shown by Fitzgerald as a spiritless man and when he first meets Nick, Nick states that a damp gleam of hope sprang into his eyes (25). This can reflect the poem where it states,“The hope only/ Of empty men” (Eliot 251). Wilson is the empty man that is still daring to hope but even his hope is devoid and lacking in emotion. Wilson’s character is trapped by his society as well. He doesn’t make enough money at his job to fully pursue his dreams but he still has a hope that he will be able to make something of himself.
Society in Fitzgerald’s novel directly influences the actions of the characters as well. Just as society seems to have left the hollow men devoid; and they seem to be merely going through the motions as hinted by the line “Gathered on this beach of the tumid river” (251). In Fitzgerald’s novel society has basically stripped the characters of their free will. In Eliot’s poem they seem to be dictated by their own flaws where society is dictating Fitzgerald’s characters. Though Tom is secretly having an affair with Myrtle it is obvious that he will not leave Daisy for her partly because of her lower class. Even though Nick doesn’t think well of Tom because of his affair it is shown that Nick has had a similar situation that he is running away from (Fitzgerald). The descriptions that Nick gives the houses in East Egg verses West Egg directly shows the differences in class. He describes his own home as a small eyesore (Fitzgerald 5). The descriptions of Daisy and Myrtle reflect a difference in their classes as well. Where Daisy is waif like and elegant, Myrtle is energetic and fleshy (Fitzgerald). Nick despite wishing to be a different person seems to not want to disappoint his society, even though he doesn’t agree with Tom’s affair he doesn’t say anything to Daisy about it. Then later he even helps Daisy to have her own affair. He wants to be socially accepted and it appears that he portrays himself to his reader in a certain way to achieve this.
The character of Gatsby represents how society can change a person. Nick as he writes the story already knows all the details but still keeps the mystery of Gatsby until closer to the end of the novel. In part the mystery that Gatsby is shrouded in shows just how society can define someone. Everywhere Nick goes he hears speculation of who Gatsby is, even before he’s met Gatsby. He hears that Gatsby is the nephew of the Kaiser, that he is a bootlegger and multiple other scenarios. The only real view that is given of Gatsby is the view that Nick has of him and besides his interpretations the only other views we get are from others comments of Gatsby. This paints Gatsby’s character as almost an entirely societal figure.
The fact that no one knows Gatsby’s history or where he came from suggests that while reinventing himself he became exactly what he expected society to want him to be. Though it is later found that the parties are being thrown as a lure for Daisy it can be interpreted at first that his outlandish parties are thrown with the sole purpose of pleasing his society. Also the fact that a lot of Gatsby seems to be almost fake at first, his mansion is this faux castle and even his accent doesn’t seem authentic to Nick. Nick also describes that the history Gatsby originally gives him seems unbelievable. It can be discerned that in order to fit in with society one must take away their individuality and with that conformity will come acceptance. In the beginning of the novel the Gatsby that is given doesn’t appear to have any substance which could represent that by becoming such an integral part of society he has ceased to have individual traits. This can directly relate to the hollow men that are leaning together, these men no longer seem to have separate facets of a personality, that are essentially all one entity (Eliot 249). Later the view given of Gatsby is filled with depth but even then the mystery of how his society views him overshadows the man that he really was.
In Countee Cullen’s poem society is not directly implied in the poem but by his descriptions of God he seem’s to be poking at his society’s perceptions. The poem contrasts “The Hollow Men” as the sole purpose is the wonder of a black man singing and in “The Hollow Men” a conflict with these men is that their jaws are broken (Eliot 251). Eliot’s men can no longer utter prayers or even really speak since all they are able to do is utter which could mean what they are able to say is insubstantial. Cullen’s men on the other hand are able to sing but it is implied that they are scorned for this ability. The fact that Cullen states that this ability for a black man to sing is the only thing that he seems to question about God’s will. He seems to imply that if it isn’t a sort of mistake it is some sort of punishment for the black man. He demonstrates this by discussing what almost seems to be the Greek Gods by talking about Tantalus and Sisyphus’s punishments. The fact that the myths have an explanation for why these two characters are punished seems to suggest that Cullen’s God has no reason for why a black man is bid to sing.If there is a reason for it then perhaps he will never know it. He directly says this by stating “Inscrutable His ways are, and immune/ To catechism by a mind too strewn” which means that God’s reasons are impossible to interpret by the societal standards and principles of religion. So even though Cullen’s black man still has his voice he is just as devoid as the hollow men with the broken jaws. Just because he is able to sing doesn’t make the songs any different then illegible utterings. This seems to hint that he is persecuted either way. The hollow men may not know why they are unable to utter prayers just as the black man does not understand why God would bid him sing. Both could be in a state of distance due to the affects there society may have on them. Despite the fact that a black man can sing it is inferred that people are not receptive of his singing which why the singing itself could be a form of punishment. His society does not wish to accept him and his question in the poem seems ask why his society would punish him when he has the same abilities as them.
Countee Cullen also seems to be referencing more of a Puritanical God, the fact that the God he discusses lacks transcendental values which reflects Eliot’s Hollow men. Eliot makes references to the underworld and perhaps to corrupt clergy with his lines “ Headpiece filled with straw” and all of the references to God in his poem seem to be broken images or unuttered prayers. Cullen sets up his God to reflect these images by starting with almost a compliment to his poem. He states that he has no doubt about God’s good attributes but then essentially states that if God deigned to explain these things then he is sure he’d have perfectly good excuses and reasons even if the logic may make no sense to Cullen’s society (Cullen).
Society ends up becoming a sort of substitution for spirituality in these texts just as the characters in The Great Gatsby have substitutions, for instance Nick substitutes Gatsby for an ideal that he wants to be. While in “Yet Do I Marvel” the substitution is in a Puritanical God verses a sort of Greek deity. These texts relate how a society can change and influence the actions of individuals and though one may try to use it as a substitution for spirituality it is insubstantial as portrayed by the vapid natures of the hollow men in Eliot’s poem. The act of trying to force an ideal of spirituality into a societal mold doesn’t seem to work and only seems to result in a lack of understanding on the part of the society. Such is the example in Countee Cullen’s poem. His ability to sing may have come from God but it didn’t fit what his community was used to and so resulted in persecution. Inevitably society cannot replace spirituality without losing a portion of it’s soul and resulting in men that are devoid of life.
Cullen, Countee. “Yet Do I Marvel” The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Eds. John Bryan, et al. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007. 265.
Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men” The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Eds. John Bryan, et al. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007. 249- 253.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
A Formalist Critical Approach to “Heritage” by Countee Cullen
The speaker in “Heritage” expresses profound emotions regarding an African-American perspective of the motherland. Countee Cullen writes in an irregular meter throughout the piece, consistently using seven syllables in each line. The speaker is effectually declaring the pains of the slave trade to be innocuous to an African American with the poem’s perspective, which is why the speaker is attempting to adopt that perspective.
The poem has a nontraditional structure, but the speaker uses recurrences as an even more important part of the work’s form. The first line is a recurring question throughout the work, and as the context of the poem is more thoroughly elaborated, this question accrues different meanings. In this way, the question is used to drive the poem, each occurrence serving as a sort of checkpoint toward the ultimate goal of understanding the question in depth. In addition to the recurring question, the speaker uses two recurring lines, “From the scenes his fathers loved / Spicy grove, cinnamon tree” (lines 8-9) The speaker also starts several statements with a recurring phrase, “So I lie,” which is first used in the eleventh line. It always precedes an account of the speaker’s state of mind with regard to the recurring question, consistently serving as a marker that a thought process is to follow. The second appearance of the recurring question is juxtaposed with the first use of the recurring phrase to exemplify that the latter is and will consistently be the means by which the speaker attempts to answer the former, and between these two lines is the first break of the poem. The nontraditional poetics at work in “Heritage” break into seven verses of varying lines, which will later take on greater significance to the form of the poem.
In the first line, the recurring question, “What is Africa to me?” is as broad as it sounds. The speaker could mean this any of several different ways; however, its second occurrence (line 10) comes after eight lines of substance, and the images explored in those eight lines are all sharp contrasts. A “copper sun” is a rising sun, which denotes a morning hour, and a “scarlet sea” is an oceanic horizon on which the light of a setting sun is cast, denoting an evening hour; similarly, “jungle star” and “jungle track” are word pairs whose latter elements hold equal contrast in that a star rests incalculably far from earth while a track (in the sense of a traveled path) is a trail carved into the earth itself. “Strong bronzed men” are contrasted with “regal black women” as well, and the purpose of these sharp contrasts, given that they are in response to the question in the first line (as evidenced by the colon at the end of line 1), is to suggest that the speaker’s relationship to Africa could be anything, the possibilities ranging as far apart as morning and evening or male and female. The recurring question’s second appearance follows these contrasts to ask of what significance with greater specificity Africa is to the speaker, suggesting that the poem will delve deeper into the answer than just the speaker’s initial, surface thoughts.
In the second verse, the speaker begins with the words, “So I lie, who all day long / want no sound except the song / sung by wild barbaric birds / goading massive jungle herds.” The significance of these four lines is that it tells the reader that the recurring question has moved the speaker to ponder its answer all day; it even suggests the speaker is warning the reader that the thought process—the poem itself—has only just begun, which is true at the start of the second verse. The speaker describes a reverie of exotic wildlife, a typical imagination of Africa, but within the description is also “young forest lovers” who get engaged. The common ground each of these images share is a carefree life, whether it be for birds of for man. The speaker considers Africa a place of freedom.
Midway through the second verse, the recurring phrase, “So I lie,” returns to signify transition to a new image, but the next image is not actually visual; rather, it stimulates the auditory sense. The speaker claims to hear drums inexplicably. This image actually foreshadows the rhythm that the speaker possesses in his body, as referenced in lines 63-69 from verse four, “So I lie, who find no peace / Night or day, no slight release / from the unremittent beat / made by cruel padded feet / walking through my body’s street. / Up and down they go, and back, / treading out a jungle track.” In this, the speaker creates ambiguity with the word “beat” because its primary denotation in this context is that of rhythm, yet a secondary denotation follows as the speaker describes this rhythm to be the result of frequent footsteps along a “street,” which is the aforementioned “jungle track.” This conjoins the concepts of rhythm and the proverbial beaten path. The speaker wants the reader to receive both denotations simultaneously so as to evoke the common idea of Africans being rhythmic people. The contextual significance of this ambiguity is that it occurs in the speaker’s blood, which suggests it is part of who the speaker is.
The third verse starts with the idea that the reason the recurring question keeps plaguing him is particularly that the answer is not just elusive but, rather, an answer once possessed and since forgotten. The speaker also implies that the search for this answer has, perhaps, always been an ongoing search that the speaker is only just now taking the time to pursue with vim. “Africa? A book one thumbs / listlessly, till slumber comes. / Unremembered are her bats / circling through the night, her cats, / crouching in the river reeds” (lines 31-35). In these lines, the speaker suggests this is the first time he or she dedicated so much time to answering the recurring question.
The speaker proceeds to say, “[…] no more / does the bugle-throated roar / cry that monarch claws have leapt / from the scabbards where they slept. / Silver snakes that once a year / doff the lovely coats you wear” (lines 37-42). The speaker is saying that the slave trade has ended, that the rulers of Europe no longer send soldiers armed with swords to Africa. The speaker, then, says, “What’s your nakedness to me?” (line 45), which is the clear marker for a change of perspective. The speaker is saying that the swords are not intimidating, and the succeeding lines explain why this is so. “Here no leprous flowers rear / fierce corollas in the air; / here no bodies sleek and wet / dripping mingled rain and sweat” (lines 46-49). The speaker’s perspective is shifting toward an answer to the recurring question. The word “leprous” and “fierce” connote that these flowers are representative of white people whom the speaker considers a threat. The slave trade is over, and so is slavery itself, as evidenced by the fact that the speaker uses lines 46-49 to explain that the Whites are not in Africa and that Blacks are not toiling and suffering in Africa either.
“What is last year’s snow to me, / last year’s anything? The tree / budding yearly must forget / how its past arose and set / bough and blossom, flower, fruit” (lines 52-56). The speaker uses these lines to conjure imagery that explain what was foreshadowed in lines 9 and 10, and the foreshadowing is confirmed in the end of verse three. “One three centuries removed / from the scenes his fathers loved, / spicy grove, cinnamon tree, what is Africa to me?” (lines 60-63). These four lines end both verses one and three, another recurrence that helps drive the poem. The speaker is describing himself with these lines; he is the cinnamon tree. It is from the first occurrence of these lines that we know the speaker is male, and the first-person pronoun in the recurring question is the only word that can identify the pronoun “his,” which is how the speaker is identified as the tree.
As important as this is to understanding the speaker, it is that much more significant in the third verse because, in combination with lines 52-56, it describes the answer the speaker is reaching. Snow is known for killing the plantlife that survives into winter, and “last year” references the speaker’s past. As a tree, the snow killed his growths, but he avers that it is necessary to put the past in the past and sally forth to simply continue growing. In spring, the tree buds again, and this signifies the speaker’s will to not allow his personal growth to be stunted by what the snow did; furthermore, the speaker uses specifically snow because it is white, so the snow on the branches of last year is symbolic of the white oppression of the past. The speaker proceeds to describe rain as something that channels his African heritage because he must dance in it to the rhythm within his veins. He ends the verse with the words, “In an old remembered way / rain works on me night and day” (lines 82-83). This furthers the concept of growth because rain contributes to the growth of trees.
The speaker is conflicted now because the white man has evangelized him. He is a Christian, but he has been told that Jesus could not have been black. He says, “Quaint, outlandish heathen gods / black men fashion out of rods / […] my conversion came high-priced; / I belong to Jesus Christ, / […] although I speak / with my mouth thus, in my heart / do I play a double part. / Ever at Thy glowing altar / must my heart grow sick and falter, / wishing He I served were black” (lines 84-100). To call the gods of African nations “heathen” is of a Christian perspective, and it has a very negative connotation; however, the speaker creates a paradox at the end of the fifth verse by saying that the heathen gods are nothing to him because, though this is true in the sense that he does not observe them, it is equally true that they are something to him inasmuch as they are his heritage.
The recurrences drive the poem, which makes them an exceptionally important part of the work’s form. The recurring question in particular plagues the speaker in the same way it plagues the reader because the speaker wants the reader to encounter the question frequently as he has. Also a potent, formal device employed is the use of seven syllables per line with seven verses in total. The speaker describes Jesus Christ as “Jesus of the twice-turned cheek” (line 94), which is about how forgiving Jesus was. Jesus’ forgiveness is equally known for instructing His disciples to forgive as many as seventy times seven times. The speaker is not only adhering to the senses of completion and perfection connoted by the seven syllables and verses but also evoking thoughts of forgiveness. He does this to show the reader that the only way to put the past behind him—the task with which he is struggling, the answer to the recurring question that plagues him—is to forgive the white man’s transgression against him.
The speaker has also used numerous other devices to prove that, though he is conflicted about it, there is an answer he has reached should he choose to accept it. In fact, it could be argued that he wants to accept the answer. Ideally, he can blend his heritage with who he is and simply continue to grow.
Cracking the Carapace: A Synthesis of the Harlem Renaissance
“During the early 1900s, the burgeoning African-American middle class began pushing a new political agenda that advocated racial equality. The epicenter of this movement was in New York, where three of the largest civil rights groups established their headquarters.” (Harlem Renaissance, 2011).
This cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s, also known as the “New Negro Movement” as referenced in Alain Locke’s 1925 collection of literary passages, was the Harlem Renaissance. During this time in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, art forms of all kinds mirrored the emergence of a new mindset that was adopted during this metamorphosis. The gradual awakening of the “New Negro” was the result of centuries of oppression and injustice at the hands of white tyrants and in some ways, themselves, revealing a period in which black achievements in the arts were allowed to flourish.
Through reflections of the era created by black artists, it is made clear that many black Americans felt that being “colored” was a disability, and in many artistic methods of expression – particularly songs and poems about the blues– it was said that they often wish for death. Dorothy West writes of a character in her short fiction work, The Typewriter, “He hated life, but he didn’t want to die… he couldn’t imagine himself an angel,” (West, 1926). Even the value of faith was scrutinized by some; wondering why a god almighty would bring such misfortune upon so many people. A work of poetry by Countee Cullen called Yet Do I Marvel voices what so many questioned desolately about the curious workings of their lord: “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” (Cullen, 1991). Words such as these were spoken all too often from many black Americans with heavy feeling about the years of oppression that plagued their race.
From the earliest accounts going back to the days of slavery, each affray that came to pass over the decades chipped at the shell that encased and smothered the black American community. What the Harlem Renaissance succeeded in doing was finally breaking through that carapace, revealing a man called the New Negro. Under the eyes of society the Old Negro was “transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life,” says Alain Locke in his anthology, The New Negro (Locke, 1925). What was left behind was an idea that stretched over an entire race: “For generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being,” (Locke). However, what was born in this renaissance was the strong will for individuality and togetherness, new psychology and old traditions, and general spirit. Common themes in visual displays of art were vibrant colors, dancing, drinking, and playing music to indicate liveliness and unification. Using the strength that had been building up for decades, the renaissance of Harlem came in the form of an advocate for racial equality and a way for achievements and arts to flourish in the black community.
However, the oppression the black community endured was not exclusively from the outside. From years of having biased ideas of their own race forced upon them by their white peers, some of the viewpoints began to sink in. “The thinking Negro even has induced to share this same general attitude,” Locke says. “to focus his attention on controversial issues, to see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.” When someone is told something enough times, they begin to believe it is true, ultimately causing the problem to attack from both the outside and the inside. The Harlem Renaissance is a triumph over this centuries-long dilemma, when black Americans truly began to explore their creative potential.
The Harlem Renaissance was not only the birth of many ideas, but it also taught Harlem and its inhabitants how to stick up for itself and halt the cycle of contagiously biased notions within its community. As shown through reflections of the era through art and music, not only some of the black American community but nearly all learned to embrace their own culture and feel pride rather than embarrassment. The New Negro was developed as a result of the appeal from the injustice of oppression from both outsiders and those within, and the Harlem Renaissance truly put to use the phrase that Zora Neale Hurston once wrote: “Discrimination is beyond me.”
The Voices of the Voiceless: Comparing the Poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen
As two key figureheads in what is now deemed the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen served as voices for a previously voiceless population. Their poetry speaks of the enduring struggles of being an African American, and the effort required to merely survive in such a discriminatory society. However, despite being poets with similar senses of purpose, their employed methods differed dramatically; Hughes and Cullen approach the field of poetry at two vastly different vantage points. While Hughes and Cullen differ in selections of speaker and audience, their core concepts of struggle, a faulty society, and a wise, complex narrator remain mutual.
As blacks in 1920s America, Hughes and Cullen were victims of widespread (and, at the time, socially acceptable) discrimination. These circumstances provided the primary themes for much of their poetry, inspiring them to write on the daily battles of life as a second class citizen. The theme of rising above struggle can be found in both author’s works. In Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son”, the narrator explains to her son that while the stairs may be unstable and dark, he must continue ascending and follow her. Symbolically, the narrator is telling her son that while life for them is filled with setbacks, they must continue to persevere on. A similar theme of finding strength and perseverance is apparent in Cullen’s poem “Incident.” In this text, the narrator recalls a time when he was called a “Nigger” while in Baltimore. However, before receiving this insult, the narrator describes himself as “heart-filled, head-filled with glee” (2). Like Hughes’s narrator that keeps climbing up, the narrator in “Incident” finds light-hearted happiness despite living in a world of discrimination. We again find this positivity in Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel.” Though the narrator describes the frustrating struggle of a “never-ending stair” (symbolism reminiscent of the stairs found in Hughes’s “Mother to Son”), he still expresses a jovial tone in this dilemma: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” (13-14). Again and again, Cullen and Hughes express their resilience in the face of racism through their poetry.
While both poets write on the discrimination that surrounds them, it is worth noting that neither author directly labels the “white man” as the cause. Rather, the blame is placed upon a more vague, general sense of society and the world in which they live. This is evident in Hughes’s work “I, Too.” When the narrator is sent to the kitchen to eat, who sends him is merely described with the pronoun “they.” Though the narrator is the victim of presumably white supremacy, the poem never specifically terms “them” as whites. Cullen utilizes a similar approach. In “Yet Do I Marvel,” God himself is blamed for the black poet’s tragic fate, rather than the work of white men. Additionally, “Incident” describes the speaker of the racial slur simply as a “Baltimorean,” rather than identifying his race. In all three of these works, Hughes and Cullen spoke of a broader cause of discrimination, rather than simply the whites around them. The poets allude to a deeper racism than merely the words and actions they experience; rather, they are victims of an entire social system that turns individuals like the “Baltimorean” into vocal racists. Hughes and Cullen recognize that discrimination does not start and end with the way they are treated; it is woven into the fabric of American culture, and it is much grander in scale than merely those who take part.
A final commonality shared between the works of Hughes and Cullen is the recurring complexity and development of the narrator. Both authors give depth and persona to the voices telling of their experiences. They are more than actors in a discriminating world; they are individuals who have pasts that have established who they are today. In Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the narrator describes a wide array of dramatic experiences, ranging from building the pyramids to witnessing Abe Lincoln traveling the Mississippi River. While these statements are metaphorical in nature (to be further examined later in this analysis), they give the reader an idea of the narrator’s accumulated wisdom. The recurring line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” confirms a connection between past experiences and personal development. Similar self-exploration is found in Cullen’s “Heritage,” in which the narrator explores his sentiments towards his African ancestry. While he feels distant from the jungles of Africa and a culture that seems as foreign to him as it would to any white man, the narrator still feels some sense of obligation to take interest and pride in his heritage. This character is given a fully developed persona, filled with guilt, conflict, and curiosity. Both Hughes and Cullen give depth to their narrators, revealing them to be individuals who have been shaped by their past experiences.
Despite the similarities in content and thematic developments, the works of Hughes and Cullen differ greatly in stylistic elements. While Hughes shapes his work around a general idea that fits the archetypal African American, Cullen works from specific personal experiences. Hughes feels a sense of obligation for speaking on behalf of a population previously unheard. His stories are made applicable to the entire black population, speaking of experiences that are broad and not able to be experienced as a single individual in the literal sense. This is found in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” where Hughes writes, “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep” (5-6). One can safely assume the narrator has not literally had these experiences personally, rather they speak to the experiences of the black archetype. While the man who built the pyramids is not the same man who saw Abe Lincoln visit New Orleans, they are men of the black community to which the poet seeks to offer a voice. Hughes generalizes to give broad application of his poems to the true experiences of black Americans. Not wanted to exclude his community by speaking on only his personal experiences, Hughes offers himself as a voice to the archetypal black life.
In contrast is the work of Cullen, which consistently tells specific stories of personal experience. Cullen too sought to be a voice for the black community, however, he believed this could be achieved through the recounting of his individual tales. For example, “Incident” tells the story of a man who is called a “Nigger” while in Baltimore. Though this is a specific experience, it is a situation to which most black Americans of the era could relate. Both Hughes and Cullen seek to be relatable to the black community, and yet two vastly differing approach are taken in pursuit of this goal.
Perhaps the most notable differences in the works of Hughes and Cullen can be found in their choice of language. Hughes seeks to free himself from the shackles of whitewashed literary standards, writing as a black man for a black audience. Cullen chooses to adhere to the traditional poetic rules, proving that it does not take a white man to create high quality literature. These differing attitudes are manifested in chosen vocabulary and syntax. Hughes makes use of black English vernacular, writing the way that the archetypal black man sounds when he speaks. In “Mother to Son,” Hughes writes “For I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’” (18-19). In this abandonment of standard English, Hughes places the verbal element of black culture in a literary context. In contrast is the formal, eloquent language of Cullen. In “Yet Do I Marvel”, his vocabulary and sentence structure is far from colloquial: “I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind, / And did He stoop to quibble could tell why” (1-2). Cullen asserts his use of formal, standard English as proof of the capabilities of black poets like himself.
Consistent with their attitudes towards traditional literary rules, Hughes and Cullen took differing approaches to poetic structure, specifically rhyme scheme and meter. Hughes employs free verse, allowing him to boundlessly express the black experience to a black audience. His work lacks a regular rhyme scheme and rhythm, with no regular meter to be followed. In opposition is the work of Cullen, which, like his chosen vocabulary, adheres to literary standards. One example is “Incident,” following a regular rhyme scheme and meter. Written in traditional ballad form, its meter alternates each line between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Its rhyme scheme follows an ABCB pattern, in which the last syllable in the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. Giving the poem structure, Cullen used this technique as further proof of his ability to keep up with even the best literary figures.
While both Cullen and Hughes play significant roles in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes stands out as the better poet. Cullen clearly expresses his talent and ability to express black life within the confines of standard literature, however, Hughes truly opened the door on a new realm of poetry for generations to come. By breaking the mold on standard English and regular rhyme scheme and meter, he speaks to an audience previous unaddressed and ignored. Poetry was now available for consumption to all who chose to partake, rather than simply the elite world of literature. In addition, his use of black English vernacular helped to legitimize its presence as a true dialect of English rather than simply a butchering of correct speech. Because he speaks for and to the general African American, Hughes offers solidarity to an entire community suffering from discrimination. Though both poets have generated exquisite work highlighting the plight of the African American, Hughes’s work has made a more significant stride for both poetic standards and the black community in the United States.
As poets of an era filled with horrific racism, Hughes and Cullen offered insight into the darker side of America. Both shared stories of struggling against a society saturated with discrimination, while also offering the reader insight into developed and experienced narrators. However, these stories are told with differing methods: while Hughes uses archetypal stories, black English vernacular, and free verse form to resonate with an entire community, Cullen maintains a specific, individual perspective, using formal English and regular rhyme scheme and rhythm. Through their similarities and differences, Cullen and Hughes both prove themselves to be groundbreaking poets for the African American community.
The Black Modern
Poets of the Harlem Renaissance faced a challenge above and beyond that of their modern contemporaries. The two groups were unified in their struggle to make sense of a chaotic reality. But Black poets writing in Harlem confronted a compounded predicament because their race further isolated them from a society that all Moderns struggled to relate to. In the context of a society that was confusing at best, poets endeavored to synthesize what they saw as a fragmented culture. Black soldiers returning from World War I had trouble re-adjusting to segregated life, as they had grown accustomed to more equal treatment abroad. Concurrent with divisions of race was a transformation of the poetic movement. It experienced a revolution of form, content, and function, as poets reacted to a turbulent culture. In addition, poets struggled to adapt to a new readership and its new expectations. Though all Modernist poets faced this struggle, black poets faced it from the edge of society. They were marginalized not just for their blackness, but also for the way they chose to react to the Modern dilemma. Blacks and whites alike criticized Langston Hughes for his informal style. Members of his own community disparaged him for not writing at the white level. Even black poets like Countee Cullen who employed traditional poetic form were viewed as distinctive from other contemporary poets. Hughes’ synthesis of his struggle imitated the form of jazz music, blending the black experience with the Modern dilemma. The traditional form of Cullen’s work also explores the black-Modern dilemma by contrasting with its content. Despite their divergent forms, Hughes’ “The Weary Blues,” and Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel” both serve as examples of black poets with the same purpose: a reconciliation of blackness with the struggles of a Modern world. Though Cullen models “Yet Do I Marvel” after the well-established Shakespearean sonnet, its themes are progressive. He infuses the traditional form with modern substance. The poem is written in the rhythmic iambic pentameter and employs highly sophisticated language. Its ABAB rhyme scheme emphasizes a contrast in form and content by linking the last word of every other line in rhyming pairs. The relationships of these pairs reveal Cullen’s conflict. The clash of a “kind” God and “blind” humanity, underscored by its rhyme, illustrates Cullen’s conception of what it means to live in a modern society. For him, modernity is a collision of new and old, sure and uncertain. He clings to a poetic form that is familiar and well established to tackle contemporary issues. Cullen’s faith in God is sure, but he questions His ways. Why most man “someday die” (4) and what compels “His awful hand?” (12). These questions emerge from Cullen’s reaction to a modern society that questions and often rejects established tradition. Through a superimposition of traditional style and contemporary content, he illustrates the first of his modern dilemmas. Hughes explores similar modern themes through an imitation of a jazz song. His poem “The Weary Blues” struggles to engage the immediate moment and context, using the form of a jazz song. In its opening lines, the poem both describes a scene, with the narrator listening to a jazz singer’s moan, and uses language to imitate the sound of the singer’s tune: Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,Rocking back and forth to a bellow croon…He made that poor piano moan with melody. (1-2, 10)These rhetorical literary devices blend the boundaries between poetry and jazz. Using language that reflects his content, Hughes makes his poetry sound like music. In describing a jazz song, he uses language that is melodic. Words like “droning” and “drowsy” hang on the readers tongue in fashion reminiscent of what the words actually mean. The placement of the word “syncopated” actually syncopates the rhythm of its line. This influence of the jazz movement on Hughes reflects his peculiar dilemma, and explains much of the criticism of his poetry. He is caught between his identity as a poet and that of a black artist. Whereas Cullen clings to a traditional form, Hughes uses jazz as an attempt to synthesize himself within a larger movement. Cullen is harder to admonish because, at least, he engages in modern themes while preserving traditional form. Conversely, Hughes identifies with singers, not just poets, and also confronts modern issues. While Cullen expresses feelings of distance from a troubled modern society, Hughes’ feelings of distance come from his conflicting persona. He identifies with the entire Harlem Renaissance, and utilizes a contemporary form to unite them all under their common struggle. Cullen perceives the modern world as full of obstacles. As a black poet, he was confined to Harlem, and lived in a segregated and unequal society. In his poem, “Yet Do I Marvel,” Cullen illustrates this inequality by invoking Greek mythological figures. He wonders why God would “tortur[e] Tantalus,” who was forced to stand in neck-high water he could not drink, and “doo[m] Sisyphus,” who He sentenced to roll a bolder up a hill, only to see it fall just before reaching the top, for the rest of eternity. We understand these two mythological figures as suffering their punishments because an omnipotent God deemed them deserving of such fates. Cullen’s question in the last two lines of the poem allow us to understand this mythological reference as an illustration of how he sees himself in a modern context. He wonders why such a great, “good” God would make “a poet black” (14). Ostensibly, Cullen does not view black poets as being in a favorable position, and he is not alone – marginalized sentiment is also present in Hughes’ work. This view colors Cullen’s reference to Sisyphus ad Tantalus; as people fated with inescapable obstacles, they reflect troubles faced by black Americans in the early twentieth century. Like Tantalus, blacks were tantalized by the booming society around them, and unable to reap its rewards. And just as Sisyphus was doomed to confront an insurmountable task, blacks were held to unfair standards. As poets, they were asked by some, like W.E.B. DuBois, to uplift their race from the top, and were admonished when it seemed they were not fulfilling their duties. Whites did not see black poetry as equal to mainstream Moderns’. Through an invocation of Greek mythology, we appreciate Cullen’s perception that black Americans faced struggles in every facet of life, and, like Sisyphus, saw no potential remedy. Through the lyrics of a jazz singer, Hughes conveys his conception of modern society as solitary and oppressive. The first of the singer’s versus illustrates this sense of loneliness: “Ain’t got nobody in all this world, / …nobody but myself.” (19-20). Even within the vast modern world – “all this world” – the singer feels alone and isolated. His repetition of the word “I” throughout the verses also emphasizes this isolation. He feels no connection to the modern world. The next verse communicates his dissatisfaction and helplessness: “I got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied / …I ain’t happy no mo’” (25-26, 28). The singer cannot be satisfied; there is nothing he, himself, can do to secure his own happiness. It is his isolation from modern society that produces this dissatisfaction. And though these sentiments seem to be those of a jazz singer, Hughes’ emphasis on repetition transforms them into the poet’s own. The boundaries between the singer’s verse and poet’s words are blended as we listen to the fatigued and disengaged moan of the singer. His identification with all Harlem Renaissance artists, regardless of their discipline, is evident as he adopts the words of the singer through repetition, and takes on their common struggle. He is compelled identify this way because of his seclusion from mainstream society. He says, “I wish that I had died,” (28) suggesting that modern society’s loneliness compels him to desire death. Though dramatic, these sentiments are perfectly understandable in consideration of the context in which Hughes writes. As a black poet, he is marginalized for his race among both his poetic peers and society at large. Furthermore, Hughes’ style distinguished him from poets like Cullen who, at least, conformed to traditional form. But both wrote of this same marginalization, notwithstanding their divergent styles. The paradox of a modern black poet is a matter that both Hughes and Cullen address. Blacks were blatantly and obviously marginalized from 1920’s society, and certainly not equal citizens. But in addition, they were marginalized from their own genre of poetry. This marginalization stands in stark contrast with the special attention that the modernist movement enjoyed on the whole. Poetic talent was given great attention and widely received. This created a paradoxical identity for poets like Hughes and Cullen – the “black” part of them admonished and the “exalted.” Cullen’s expresses this paradox explicitly in the last lines of his poet, as he wonders “What awful brain compels [God’s] awful hand… / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” (13, 15). Again questioning God’s motives for making society so troubling, Cullen perceives this dual identity as part of his modern dilemma. Hughes does not address the paradox explicitly, but it can be used to explain the source of the troubles expressed in his poem. His inability to relate to society at large was due to the duality of being a second-class citizen and part of a group of admired artists. The words of the jazz singer’s song, which can be interpreted as the poet’s own, express fatigue. He says, “I got the Weary Blues / and I can’t be satisfied.” (25-26). There is no satisfaction in the life of a black poet. Hughes is held to both a white and black standard, criticized by his black audience for his use of colloquial language, and from his white audience for attempting to assimilate into the modernist movement. He says, “I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died.” (29-30). His frustration leads him to question whether his paradoxical identity is worth the trouble it causes him. The focus on Harlem Renaissance poetry’s divergence from other modern poetry conceals a discussion of the poetry itself. Reducing Cullen’s and Hughes’ significance to their innovative forms precludes a discussion of their more thematic contributions concerning the nature and challenges of a dual identity. This very struggle of self-determination informed the poets’ experimentation with form, and reflected their unequal standing as black artists in a fragmented Modern world.