Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen; drawing by David Levine


Countee Cullen was the Edna St. Vincent Millay of the Harlem Renaissance. Virtually every poem of this romanticized writer was read by blacks as well as whites as a gesture, or even a “monument to the New Negro movement.” Before the publication of his first collection, Color, in 1925, when he was twenty-two, Cullen was already being celebrated, partly perhaps because he demonstrated that a black could turn out high-minded heroic couplets. Dead at forty-two, he has also come down to us in numerous anthologies of American poetry as something of a boy wonder who was silenced before his time, like the Romantic poets who were his models.

Cullen lacks an adequate biography,1 and this may account for the very general picture we have of him. He is never overlooked in books about the Harlem Renaissance, and yet among its major personalities he is the most recessive, harder to comprehend even than Langston Hughes. He is a figure of “sheer inscrutability,” as Gerald Early puts it in his lengthy introduction to My Soul’s High Song. Nothing, Early warns us, can be known with any certainty about Cullen’s formative years. Apparently no detail was too small to be ashamed of. Before he was famous, Cullen gave his birthplace as Louisville, Kentucky, but then switched it to New York City. Early tells us that there are even conflicting documents concerning Cullen’s height; he got taller as an adult, growing from five foot two inches to five foot ten inches as time went by.

The liveliest biographical sketch of Cullen is in David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue,2 according to which he was born Countee Leroy Porter in Louisville in 1903. After his father “disappeared,” his mother took him to Baltimore to live with his paternal grandmother, who later moved with him to New York, where she ran a home for abandoned children. When she died, he went to live with the childless Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, though it is unclear exactly when that was—perhaps 1918—and whether the Cullens ever formally adopted him.

“Countee’s gratitude to his foster parents never ceased to be a part of his adult personality,” Arna Bontemps observes in his memoir of the Harlem Renaissance.3 “His poetry reflected it, even when he became mildly critical of the elder Cullen’s fundamentalism. Not even sad or tragic themes deprived his lyrics of thankful overtones.” Although Reverend Cullen’s concentration on the prodigy in his care caused some resentment among his relations—Lewis passes on the gossip of the day that described Reverend Cullen, an NAACP activist, as a “menace” to choir boys and “oddly fond” of his wife’s cosmetics—Cullen more than repaid his adoptive father’s emotional investment, accompanying the Reverend Cullen on holidays abroad in the years between 1926 and 1938, while Mrs. Cullen stayed home. He was a model student and never got over the habit of winning prizes and approval, shining at DeWitt Clinton High School, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU in 1925, and taking a master’s degree at Harvard in 1926.

If Langston Hughes was an escapee from the Talented Tenth, then Countee Cullen was among its most satisfying creations. His willingness to be defined by its expectations probably accounts for his marriage to Du Bois’s daughter, Harlem’s brightest social event in 1928. The courtship had been full of sonnets and fantasy. Shortly after the ceremony, Cullen sailed to Paris on a Guggenheim. When the bride arrived a few months later the marriage fell apart immediately, and Du Bois’s dynastic ambitions were disappointed. Du Bois’s daughter stormed off with the phonograph key and sued for divorce.

Lewis advances the theory that the problem in the marriage had more to do with Cullen’s affection for his best man, Harold Jackman, a high school chum who became a gleaming presence at Harlem parties, and whom, for his good looks, Winold Reiss made into an icon of light-skinned New Negro charm in portraits such as “The College Lad.” In Lewis’s view, Cullen’s ambiguous sexuality, along with what he considered his shameful origins, and his “pain as an Afro-American,” confirmed in Cullen a “singular corroding suspicion of a life cursed from birth, of something gone wrong from the day of creation.” (Early finds “no proof” of Cullen’s homosexuality, though some may find the lavishness of innuendo in Carl Van Vechten’s scrapbooks in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale worth a raised eyebrow. Jackman, who inherited most of Cullen’s papers and established a collection in his friend’s name in the Amstead Research Center at Dillard University in New Orleans, was said to have kept a journal of nervous-making intimacy but evidently it has disappeared.)


Still, Du Bois’s advice to Cullen to “arrange to be a friend companion and coworker with your wife and let love show itself chiefly there” was eventually heeded, and when Cullen remarried in 1940, he found with his second wife, also a divorcée, a ready-made family, a quiet home in Tuckahoe, New York, and an excellent partner at cards. “How I would love a good game of bridge now.” She also may have spared him an all-out Ackerley-like transference of affection from mankind to pets, though his intensely cherished cat was the inspiration for the children’s books that he wrote toward the end of his life.4

Unlike other writers of the Harlem Renaissance who lost their patronage during the Depression, when public enthusiasm for black artists vanished, Cullen was not so vulnerable because of his superior education. He had always held himself aloof from a sponsorship that could be seen as condescending, and in particular from Carl Van Vechten’s conviction that his support was enough to part the waters for deserving black writers. “They really are too nice for white people,” Cullen wrote of one couple in 1939. “And isn’t that a mean provincial thing to say? No, I guess not. Any time an American Negro says something mean about white people he has justice on his side.” He declined invitations to teach at black colleges in the South, probably because he did not want to live under Jim Crow. If he did not exactly have choices, he had, at least, the ways of the Talented Tenth to fall back on, and in 1934, he became a junior high school French teacher in the New York City school system, where he remained until his death in 1946.


Color had been followed by Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), and The Medea and Some Poems (1935), but On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, chosen by Cullen himself and published in 1947, after his death, contained only a half dozen unpublished poems among nearly one hundred poems of varying length. Perhaps, as has been suggested, he ceased to be prolific because the lyric mode suited only his youthful preoccupations, or he had come to realize that the ability of art to affect human events was an illusion:

Shall I go all my bright days singing,
(A little pallid, a trifle wan)
The failing note still vainly clinging
To the throat of the stricken swan?

Shall I never feel and meet the urge
To bugle out beyond my sense
That the fittest song of earth is a dirge,
And only fools trust Providence?

Than this better the reed never turned flute,
Better this than no song,
Better a stony silence, better a mute
Mouth and a cloven tongue.
(“Self Criticism”)

He was also a columnist for Opportunity magazine in 1927, contributing travel essays to it and to The Crisis while abroad in 1928 and 1929, and he wrote a novel, One Way to Heaven, published to ambivalent notices in 1932. In the 1930s he tried to break into show business, cutting up his novel for the stage without success and collaborating with Bontemps on the adaptation for “St. Louis Woman.” But his professional life had long settled into devotion to the young, writing for them and teaching. This seems appropriate, because his work gives off a strong whiff of the classroom, and because he himself sprang from school poetry contests into print.

My Soul’s High Song is an expanded edition of On These I Stand, including many poems Cullen left out, and several very early or late poems that had not been collected when Cullen died. Early’s volume is close to what Cullen had at first intended, since he has added Cullen’s serviceable prose translation of The Medea, in which, in order to indicate where the Greek changes to lyric meter, Cullen gave the chorus the rhythm of Anglican hymns, and Virgil Thomson later set them to music. Early also includes a selection of Cullen’s essays, which helps to give a sense of his working life as a reviewer of the plays and books that were of interest to his black audience at the time, and reprints in full his harmless comedy of Harlem drawingroom manners, One Way to Heaven.

Cullen wanted to be known as a “Poet,” not a Negro poet, but we remember him only because he was black. He survives as an admired cultural figure, one of the most widely published poets of his day, but he is also seen as something of a cautionary tale. Since his death, interest in him has tended to rest in the contradictions of his example, that of a modern black writer attempting to reconcile his identity with the tone and style of a nineteenth-century British poetic tradition, resisting the influence of his contemporaries, white or black, Imagist or jazz poet. He made his aesthetic choice early on, and never looked back, so that finding the difference between a poem of his bright promise—


With two white roses on her breasts, White candles at head and feet,
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests; Lord Death has found her sweet.

Her mother pawned her wedding ring To lay her out in white;
She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing To see herself tonight.
(“A Brown Girl Dead”)

—and a poem of his disillusionment written some two decades later—

O land of mine, O land I love, A Worm gnaws at your root;
Unless that Worm you scotch, remove, Peace will not be the fruit.

Let Hirohito be dethroned, With Hitler gibbet-high
Let Mussolini, bloody, stoned, Be spaded deep in lye…
(“Apostrophe to the Land”)

—can only fascinate the specialist. Someone had to do it, and Alan Shucard’s study, Countee Cullen,5 offers the most patient scrutiny to date of Cullen’s themes, the antithetical cast of his mind, the changing shades and shifts of emphasis in his contemplation from volume to volume of love won, love lost; the threat of love to the peace of mind (“Your love to me was like an unread book”); his struggle to hold to a Christian view of the world (“The meek are promised much in a book I know / But one grows weary turning cheek to blow”); his challenges to authority, i.e., God, “the Cryptic One”; the temptations of his pagan impulses; the necessity to cool his primitive urges as a black in order to get along in the white world; and his Edenic conception of Africa:

Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats
Circling through the night, her cats
Crouching in the river reeds,
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds
By the river brink; no more
Does the bugle-throated roar
Cry that monarch claws have leapt
From the scabbard where they slept…

Cullen insisted on the freedom of the black poet to choose any subject. He believed the “one note” of concern with race was a hindrance to the development of the black artist, though he was quick to add that escaping consciousness of race was impossible. In the introduction to the anthology of black poetry he edited, Caroling Dusk (1927), he argued that there was poetry written by blacks, but not a linguistic category that could be called black poetry. His hidden fear may have been that writing black poetry would somehow disqualify him from the universal intellectual fraternity, “this one identity of soul” that his avid reading and classes in various stanza forms had led him to imagine. Yet he was always in some way writing about being black, even when his subject was Death, who appears as justice, a great equalizer, the medium of judgment for one’s enemies or a new beginning for the self, a means of entrance into a prestigious gentleman’s club. His fatalism came from the sense that the cards were stacked against him for reasons he couldn’t help. “Yet I do marvel at this curious thing: /To make a poet black and bid him sing!”

It followed that by adhering to the conventions of English prosody, he could transcend category. A poem wouldn’t be black poetry anymore, even if the quatrains described a racial insult on a trolley in Baltimore. If the language and sentiments were “lofty” enough, it would break into this sacred grove called Poetry. Paul Laurence Dunbar lamented that editors were interested in his dialect poems, but not in his poems written in Standard English. Unlike Claude McKay, who had a period of writing dialect poetry before his well-known sonnets, Cullen did not resort to an alternative voice, folk idiom or urban vernacular. Even his streetwalkers speak poetry-ese.

As Nathan Huggins noted, “Cullen wanted to be acknowledged as a poet so that he would not be condescended to as a Negro, so that he could be an example of Negro potential, successfully competing on the white man’s ground.”6 Cullen sometimes described his poetry as a means of distancing and diminishing the injuries, social and personal, that he had endured, and restoring in him a feeling of control. It also was a retreat into privacy, and in reinventing himself as a poet he worked hard to conceal as much as he expressed. As far as protest went, the most he ever allowed himself was an occasional wryness and irony. He valued restraint above all things, which gives to his probing of his “own soul’s salvation” and reflections on suffering a certain wistfulness. There was about him something of the martyr, and he had the martyr’s narcissism.

A hungry cancer will not let him rest
Whose heart is loyal to the least of dreams;
There is a thorn forever in his breast
Who cannot take his world for what it seems;
Aloof and lonely must he ever walk,
Plying a strange and unaccus- tomed tongue,
An alien to the daily round of talk,
Mute when the sordid songs of earth are sung…
(“A Thorn Forever in the Breast”)

The suspicion that Cullen was “a detached exquisite, crafting eloquent little reliquaries for his themes,”7 was reinforced in the 1970s, when several books examining black literature from the viewpoint of the so-called black aesthetic were being published. Since then sympathetic critics have had to work overtime to extract some profundity about the black condition from Cullen’s airy vision of poetry as the “lofty thought beautifully expressed” to find some exonerating militant feeling behind his gentility. Thanks to the magic of deconstruction, his enthrallment to poetic diction has even been interpreted as a clever mask, an infiltration of “Western standards,” a “denigration of forms” that results in an “effective blackening.”8

Early develops a very convoluted argument about the nature of the Harlem Renaissance itself in order to make a case for Cullen’s historical importance to black literature. In Early’s version, Cullen becomes a representative of the conservative wing of the spiritual and intellectual awakening, who, by “suffusing essentially English poetry with race consciousness,” was doing in his own way what others were doing by elevating black folk forms. Everyone shared the common goal of defining a distinctive black voice.

But the differences between Cullen and Langston Hughes cannot be underestimated. Jazz poetry put Cullen off completely. Part of his insistence that art, “the quiet way of communing,” should come before race may have been an expression of his anxiety about being too loud, so to speak. “Negroes should be concerned with making good impressions.” If poetry was too loud, it would disturb potential white allies and friends of blacks. This is not far from the position of Du Bois, who regarded art as propaganda, preferred an ennobling literature, and hated novels of Harlem low life because he felt they catered to prurient tastes.

Cullen believed that the black artist had a duty to combat the misrepresentations of whites. White writers were not “under the same obligations to us as we are to ourselves.” The black artist, therefore, even if he found his “dream material” in the lower classes of blacks, had to be careful not to pander to “the popular trend of seeing no cleanliness in their squalor, no nobleness in their meanness, and no commonsense in their ignorance.” White publishers, he observed, rejected stories about cultivated blacks because they wouldn’t sell or didn’t have the convincing quality of an exposé. Cullen, however, believed that educated blacks and their habits of mind were as “truly representative” of the race as were the poor. His purpose, then, was to elevate the less popular story of cultivation among blacks. It was a form of scorn toward those, white and black, who assumed blacks could not have high culture without falsifying their blackness. “Then call me traitor if you must, /…For never shall the clan / confine my singing to its ways / Beyond the ways of man” (“To Certain Critics”).

It has been suggested that perhaps Cullen’s mildness should be read in the light of his black predecessors, that the Harlem Renaissance ought not to be taken as such a sharp break with turn-of-the-century black writers like Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose indirect treatment of the theme of social prejudice had been all that was possible for them.9 But young writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston very much thought of their work as a radical departure from what had gone before. The drama of what they were doing, to them, was that it was a break, something new, an ambition that Cullen did not at all share. His love of art seemed almost to exclude it. He was proudly on his own course, doing precisely what many radical critics have accused him, of though in his day the donnishness of his voice was considered an achievement.

And yet Cullen was not trying to speak for blacks, but as a black, as a self that happened to be black. In an Opportunity column (March 1928) he refers, approvingly, to Browning’s poem “House,” in which Browning decries those poets who “made a bleeding pageant of the heart.” A bit of the Browning philosophy of circumspection, he argued, would, if practiced by more black writers, improve race relations. “Decency demands that some things be kept secret; diplomacy demands it; the world loses respect for violators of this code.” What this reveals is that Cullen wasn’t expressing the forbearance of a religious sensibility, or even the supposed self-sacrifice inherent in theories of an impersonal poetry. He was proclaiming his loyalty to a code, the rules of conduct expected of a gentleman at all times. His perception of himself as a black who had been transformed into a gentleman by his literary education, or as a black in whom the gentleman had been freed by his vocation, in turn influenced his reading of the literary tradition and explains why, except inadvertently, he did not feel his generation in his bones.

What Huggins called Cullen’s “conservative idealism,” what Cullen himself praised as the “select and austere circle of high literary expression,” is forgiven among black critics now because terms like “bourgeois,” “formalist,” and “conservative” have been made neutral, purely descriptive, their negative connotations wiped away. This revisionist mood suits Early, who has embarked on a bold mission of rehabilitation: “It must always be kept in mind that Cullen was a great poet.” Early is troubled that the work of this “young handsome black Ariel ascending,” this “bronze-skinned titan” who once “embodied many of the hopes, aspirations, and maturing expressive possibilities of his people,” has gone out of fashion, because, in part, the contemporary audience prefers “poorly conceived prose bizarrely spread out on the page” to “strict metrical forms.” Cullen’s availability through anthologies has, he thinks, wrongly made him a poet “whom one knows through a few overly familiar works disembodied from a corpus,” a “mere schoolhouse poet.”

The effort to find a place for Cullen’s work betrays the overinvestment scholars have made in the Harlem Renaissance, and in the attempt to construct a black literary history that converts every artist into a determined agent of progressiveness. Even when critics concede that Cullen’s manner is that of a minor poet, they then declare him an outstanding black man and therefore important to black poetry. Early is not entirely free of this loose reasoning when he suggests that Cullen’s academic credentials establish him as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. True, virtually no black poet before him had such “legitimate training,” and that was why, in a different climate, he was revered. But just as it is unfair to judge Cullen by retroactive demands on him for protest and defiance, it doesn’t seem reasonable to pretend he’s been neglected because people are no longer impressed by a “black man’s manipulation of white poetic forms.”

Early himself doesn’t make much of a case for Cullen’s most ambitious and solemn poems, “Heritage,” “The Litany of the Dark People,” “The Shroud of Color,” “The Black Christ” or “The Ballad of the Brown Girl.” Now that he has provided us with an enormous slab of Cullen’s work, the point needs to be made that, while there has been much discussion of Cullen’s meaning, his intentions, there is little frankness about the banality and sonority of so many of the poems.

Cullen is not the culmination of a subversive black genteel tradition; he had as little to do with black poetic predecessors like Frances Harper and Paul Laurence Dunbar as he did with the French Symbolists. 10 He was indifferent to the available idioms of his day, unlike, say Phillis Wheatley, another caged songbird of modest accomplishment, a Boston slave, who, in the middle of nowhere with the Bible, found and was inspired by Pope. Sterling Brown once described how his generation of black poets rejected the pessimism of The Waste Land, but with Cullen there is no hint that he took Eliot, Pound, or Yeats seriously enough to reject them. Nor is there evidence in his work that he saw himself as a conservationist in the onslaught of modernism.

Beauty, in Cullen’s mind, belonged wholly to the past. In many of his poems a racial subject is just the starting point. The subject is hardly addressed before the lines begin to swim with the classical imagery convention expects to be visited upon a shepherd prince snoozing in lingering leaves. For Cullen, Keats was the language of universality, an Ideal Poetry. He wrote homages to Keats, messages to his grave, and invoked his name with tender worship. It wouldn’t matter, of course, that he looked to Keats, preferring the early poems that made Byron cringe to the later ones, had he known what to do with the admiration, in the way that Philip Larkin ran away with the stanza form of Keats’s odes for “The Whitsun Weddings.” Cullen could reproduce and imitate but he didn’t truly get the feeling of the form. Instead, he settled for the feeling of the page, the wooziness the exalted sound produced in his own head, the sound of something stoical, not colloquial or loud.

Keats broke the bonds of the heroic couplet in Endymion, but with Cullen enjambment can be a trap. The rhyming can go on inexorably, as long as his attention span will allow, especially if the rhyme comes on an unimportant word, leaving the meaning to catch up later, even in what is for him a poem of uncommon directness:

Lord, being dark,” I said, “I can- not bear
The further touch of earth, the scented air;
Lord, being dark, forewilled to that despair
My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt
Beneath my brother’s heel; there is a hurt
In all the simple joys which to a child
Are sweet; they are contaminate, defiled
By truths of wrongs the childish vision fails
To see; too great a cost this birth entails….

And somehow it was born upon my brain
How being dark, and living through the pain
Of it, is courage more than angels have. I knew
What storms and tumults lashed the tree that grew…
(“The Shroud of Color”)

“When it wills there is no greater despot than rhyme,” Cullen once wrote in a review. Clearly, he did not think the warning applied to his own work. He once explained that his poetry came out of him already metered and rhymed, but too often with Cullen his rhyme dictates rather than seduces sense. Couplets go in one eye and out the other. And sometimes his ease undermines the authority of a poem. Instead of announcing what he was doing at the beginning of a poem and then playing out variations, Cullen would start off with triplets, revert to couplets, randomly toss in a triplet later on, simply because he had that third rhyme and couldn’t see why he shouldn’t use it. For someone known for his fastidiousness, he had little sense of a word’s decorum. One gets the feeling that he never stopped to ask himself why, for example, the sea should be “honeyed.” Because of his technical facility, he seemed to overestimate the expressiveness of his language. Apart from the odd, often obscure mythological word, his idiom is commonplace. (He can be careless: Tantalus and Sisyphus appear in his rebuke to a Judeo-Christian God for the caprices in His creation.)

One can find in Cullen so many diverse echoes—Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Stephen Crane, Housman, Dickinson—because his work is itself an anthology devoid of a strong single personality. Whether writing about suicide, an agile waiter in Atlantic City, blacks passing as white, or lynching as a test of faith, the concrete or the abstract, it all sounds the same, like Poetry, the music of words that is beyond analysis, as Robert Hillyer, his teacher at Harvard, who disliked the metaphysical poets, instructed him.

No matter how pious the emotion, the real subject of any Cullen poem is the rapture of the prosody he was drawn to master, the vein-thrilling possibilities of versification—Rime Royal or Triolet, an Alexandrine or trochaic tetrameter catalectic. Tiddle tiddle tiddle tum. Cullen was the “nice, fanciful boy reciting his lessons,” as one exasperated supporter chided him. “Yet back you go, though counterfeit you be. / I love bright books even when they fail me.” The sadness of his career lies in his inability to claim as his own the tradition he admired, to conceive of it as something to be inherited and added to. He borrowed it and handed it back, like a poor relation careful to show his painful good manners.

This Issue

March 5, 1992