How was Countee Cullen different from other Harlem Renaissance Poets?
During the Harlem Renaissance many poets turned to forms of music, such as jazz and the blues, to inspire the structure of their poetry. Cullen respected these forms of black cultural expression but being classically trained felt that it was not necessary for the rhythms and beats of music to diverge into the structure of poetry. Cullen was unique because he expressed typical themes of writing from the Harlem Renaissance, the most common being discrimination, questions of black identity and relationships to Africa [Heritage], through the medium of poems (often sonnets) that followed European traditions. He wrote with strict meter and lots of classical allusion to Greek mythology. (Example: Yet Do I Marvel mentions Sisyphus.)
Cullen was also extremely fond of the works of John Keats, Percy Shelley and Edna St. Vincent Millay – all of whom were white poets of a fairly classical nature. In his younger years he even wrote a poem for Keats.
Reoccurring Themes in the Works of Countee Cullen
A Difference in Tone : Comparing ‘For a Lady I Know’ and ‘From the Dark Tower’
'For a Lady I Know’ is a 4 line poem that approaches racism and discrimination with a dry sense of humor and a mocking tone. Cullen uses an abab rhyme scheme to get his point across in a quick witty stanza. ‘For a Lady I Know’ jokes about a white woman who is so used to having blacks work for her that when she imagines heaven she pictures blacks still serving for her. Based on this poem’s casual tone one would suspect that the issue behind the words was of minimal importance. However, it is somewhat ironic to note that Cullen has written several other poems that deal with the same subject with a completely different tone.
‘From the Dark Tower’ is a poem that consists of one 8 line stanza followed by one 6 line stanza. The first stanza uses an abba rhyme scheme twice while the second stanza uses an aabbcc rhyme scheme. ‘From the Dark Tower’ has a somber tone – a melancholic resolved hopefulness. Cullen deals with the issue of racism on a completely different level. Instead of laughing at the way things are and the blindness of those who except things as they are, Cullen talks about how someday things are going to change. In the first stanza he is saying that blacks will not always have to work other men’s land or stay silent or tend others while they sleep or work with animals or “eternally weep.” In the second stanza Cullen is saying that until things change blacks will blossom in the dark and continue to nurse the potential they have inside of them until they are allowed to shine in the light.
Religious Issues sprung from Religious Influences
Comparing Heritage and Simon the Cyrenian Speaks
Although Cullen’s adoptive father was the pastor of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem and although Cullen was taught Christian values from a very early age, the poet was never afraid to question God or religion in his poetry. Cullen questions religion in both Heritage and Simon the Cyrenian Speaks.
In Simon the Cyrenian Speaks, a poem composed of four four-lined stanzas with an abab rhyme scheme, Cullen begins by discussing his feelings of uncertainty towards following a white Christ. The last two stanzas, however, explain that even though Christ is white Cullen will serve him without being pushed or abused. Furthermore, Cullen goes on to say that following someone out of free-will is more valuable than forcing a belief upon someone. Simon the Cyrenian praises Christ at the same time that it gives him human imperfections; Cullen calls Christ “very meek” and says that He is “dying for a dream.” However, the overall impression the reader receives of Christ is a good one. When Cullen reflects on the Romans and their way of getting things accomplished – “with bruise of lash or stone” – he reminds us of the behavior of white men to their black slaves. And by placing Christ above the Romans, he is also placing Christ above racists, implying that Christ is all-loving.
Cullen also confronts religion and God in the last 44 line stanza of Heritage. But in Heritage, instead of praising God like he did in Simon the Cyrenian Speaks, Cullen expresses his frustration and confusion towards religion. The poem Heritage deals with the ties of African-Americans to Africa. In Heritage, Cullen tries to explain that his descendents (“one three centuries removed”) are people from an “unremembered” Africa.
In the last stanza Cullen points out that while Africans might follow “heathen gods” he is a devout Christian; he belongs “to Jesus Christ, / Preacher of Humility.” Later, he goes on to express how it is difficult to be a black Christian; “Ever at Thy glowing altar / Must my heart grow sick and falter, / Wishing He I served were black… Surely then this flesh would know / Yours had borne a kindred woe.” It is difficult for Cullen to be Christian because he feels that God, who he lives to serve, can never understand what it means to be black.
The stanza turns into a confession and a request for forgiveness when Cullen writes; “Lord, I fashion dark gods, too, / Daring even to give You / Dark despairing features where, / Crowned with dark rebellious hair… Lord, forgive me if my need / Sometimes shapes a human creed.” Cullen is admitting that, in order to continue believing in God, he often thinks of Him as black.
Simon the Cyrenian Speaks emphasizes that fact that Christ is all-loving and, therefore, above issues of racism, whereas Heritage conveys Cullen’s insecurities and uncertainties concerning both his own identity and the identity of God, touching on his fear that the difference between their identities might alter the nature of their relationship.
Dealing with the Issue of Race
Racism and African-American identity were two of the most dealt with issues of the Harlem Renaissance. However, despite the growing acceptance of African-American writing, Cullen struggled with his identity as an African-American because he felt people saw him only as a black poet and not simply a poet.
“If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race. That s all very well, not of us can get away from it. I cannot at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of Negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with.” – C.C.
Heritage, perhaps Cullen’s most important poem, questions what it really means to be an African-American. Even though Cullen tried to move away from writing about race it must be remembered that Cullen was not ashamed of who he was. “Of course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a Negro is strong, I express it.”
In Heritage he asks; “What is Africa to me?… Africa? A book one thumbs / Listlessly, till slumber comes.” The Harlem Renaissance was a time in which authors explored the matter of their identities. Cullen, who wished to move away from the topic of race, continually marveled that God would “…make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
A monument that depicts a “black” Cullen reaching for a “white” Cullen depicts clearly the image of Cullen being torn between writing poetry and being a black poet.