“Yet Do I Marvel” is a sonnet about racism and art. However, it begins as a meditation on God. The speaker first expresses his faith that God is good. He says that God, if He felt like it, could even explain the reasons behind the suffering and cruelty in the world. Without such an explanation handy, though, human beings just need to trust that God has a reason for everything. Besides, even if God did decide to explain things to us, our minds are too weak to understand His ways. Then comes the surprising final two lines of the poem, which say that even though the speaker knows all of this about God, he is still surprised by one thing: that God chose to make poets who are black. Why is a black poet a “marvel” and “curious thing” according to the speaker? The poem does not state the reason explicitly. However, if we read between the lines of this heavily ironic poem, it becomes clear that it is a difficult fate to be a black poet in a racist society that does not take the lives, experiences, or self-expression of black people seriously. This kind of society sees the words “black” and “poet” as a contradiction. Being a black poet in such a world is another of God's inexplicable tricks.
The poem begins with a premise: God is good. The seemingly bad things He does could be explained—if only God felt like explaining His reasoning to us mere mortals. The speaker then gives some examples of things that seemingly contradict the existence of a “well-meaning [and] kind” God.
First, he mentions the existence of the mole, an animal who is blind and lives “buried” underground. Second, the speaker discusses the harsh fact of death. Though humans were made in God’s image, he says, every human “must some day die.” Next come two allusions to classical mythology. God certainly has a good reason, the speaker suggests, for torturing Tantalus. This ancient Greek king was punished with the eternal torture of going hungry and thirsty with a fruit tree and a pool of water just out of reach. Similarly, Sisyphus was doomed for eternity to roll a heavy stone up a hill—only to have it roll down the bottom and then begin pushing it up again. The fate of the mole, human beings, Tantalus, and Sisyphus are given as examples of phenomena that are difficult to square with God’s goodness. So end the first eight lines of the poem, written as a single long sentence.
Because this poem is a sonnet, it has a volta or “turn” where the tone and content shift. This occurs in line nine of “Yet Do I Marvel.” Here the speaker picks up the question of God’s goodness. Since God’s ways are “inscrutable,” he states, even if humans did receive an explanation for the harshness of the universe, they would be unlikely to understand. Our puny minds simply cannot compare with the “awful brain” of God.
The poem then makes another turn for the final two lines. Beginning with “Yet,” this last couplet seemingly undoes everything that comes before. Earlier the speaker seemed to make peace with the fact that, even though some of God’s actions might be confusing to us, He is fundamentally good. In these last lines, however, he says that despite this knowledge, something still surprises him: God made black poets. As with the fate of the mole, the morality of humans, and the harsh punishments given to Tantalus and Sisyphus, being both black and is poet is indirectly described as an example of God’s harshness. Why does the speaker see the existence of black poets as a “curious” thing and a “marvel”? To understand this we need to dig deeper into Cullen’s work and the time period in which he lived.
Cullen published “Yet Do I Marvel” in 1925. Slavery in the United States had been abolished a mere 62 years prior: there were African Americans still alive with first-hand memories of enslavement. Meanwhile, racism and discrimination remained strong. In many parts of the country segregation and restrictive Jim Crow laws were at full force. What does all of this have to do with being a poet? Though the speaker of "Yet Do I Marvel" does not state this explicitly, he suggests multiple reasons why being both black and a writer is a surprising and shocking thing—and even an example of God’s cruelty.
To be a successful poet one needs to be literate, have access to education, and live in a society that values what you have to say. Literary scholar Keith D. Leonard suggests that Cullen described being black and a poet as a “marvel” because it was difficult for African Americans to achieve all three of these preconditions. Further, racist stereotypes in Europe and America have long contrasted blackness to civilization. In literature, blackness was often associated with barbarism and evil while whiteness was linked to enlightenment and purity. Finally, the speaker of “Yet Do I Marvel” notes that the existence of a black poet is a “curious thing” because people often treated creative and talented African Americans as curiosities, or something beyond the norm.
There is a final way of understanding why the poem describes being both black and a poet as a “marvel” and implies that it is a further example of God’s punishment. Art has often been understood as something universal: it takes up themes like love, death, and so on. Art is meant to address what is shared among humanity. Cullen partly subscribed to this notion of art. He wanted to write about universal topics and not be pigeonholed as a black writer. He once wrote: “If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET...I shall not write of Negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda...” However, as the title of his most important book of poetry (Color) suggests, he often found himself writing about race. If art was universal, then writing about being an African American could be seen as a form of particularity. Cullen was often caught in this tension between wanting to write poetry that was ‘simply’ poetry and feeling compelled to specifically address the issue of being black in America. This struggle helps us understand the speaker of “Yet Do I Marvel,” who depicts God’s “mak[ing] a poet black” as a grand contradiction and impossible double-bind.
Perhaps, the poem suggests, God could explain why he chose to punish people with being both black and a poet—two identities that racism sees as contradictory. God chooses not to explain the reasoning behind this decision. And so, for the speaker, the “marvel” continues. Though the poem began with an affirmation of faith in God, it ends with a strong sense of ambiguity. In the end, is a God who allows racism a good God? Is it kind for God to give someone the ability to “sing” (i.e., produce poems) within a society that does not care to hear their song? Is such a God “well-meaning?” The poem leaves the readers to make up their own minds.