MY SOUL'S HIGH SONG; The Collected Writings Of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance Edited by Gerald Early Doubleday. 618 pp. $27.95; paperback $14.95
AMONG THE black American writers who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, none was more pampered and promoted by the arts establishment than Countee Cullen. Born in 1903, Cullen published his first volume of poetry, Color, in 1925 when he was still an undergraduate. He appeared to embody the ideals of youth, cultural sophistication and educational achievement that distinguished the modern New Negro from the post-Reconstruction Old. In the '20s, black writers were beginning to gain world-wide recognition not as passive beneficiaries of American culture but as accomplished contributors to civilization, whom W.E.B. Du Bois called co-workers in the kingdom of culture.
To many critics and observers Cullen seemed the most promising of the new writers. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University and went on to earn a master's degree at Harvard. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which made it possible for him to travel to Europe and the Middle East. For a brief time he was married to Du Bois's daughter, Yolanda. In his short life -- he died in 1946 -- he published several volumes of verse, a novel, children's books and an adaptation of "Medea." He wrote a regular column for Opportunity magazine and edited an anthology of poetry by black poets of his generation. Much of this important material has been out of print for too long. Now with the publication of My Soul's High Song, expertly edited and annotated by the poet and essayist Gerald Early, readers today have a wonderful opportunity to enjoy Cullen's best and most representative work.
With the help of Early's long and detailed introduction we encounter the thematic depth yet limited range of Cullen's material. After an auspicious start to his literary career, Cullen later resigned himself to a career as a public school teacher of French and an author of children's books. The reasons for this shift -- some would say decline -- remain unclear, part of a life that was full of ambiguities. For the most part Cullen remains an enigma. He was a poet at war with himself. As the present volume attests through its generous sampling of prose and poetry, Cullen struggled to affirm his race but saw it as a "shroud of color," and he fought to find peace with a Christianity that branded him a sinner. Religion, for Cullen, associated blackness with sin and prohibited him from enjoying the "pagan" impulses suggested by his race. Cullen's most famous sonnet, "Yet Do I Marvel," ends with this tension:
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
And his poem "The Shroud of Color" offers a grim view of his racial sorrow:
Lord, being dark, forewilled to that despair
My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt
Beneath my brother's heel . . .
Blackness, for Cullen, is a burden or a cross he must bear. His work has neither the folk exuberance of Langston Hughes's blues-inspired verse nor the trenchant social criticism that fires Claude McKay's use of similar sonnet forms. Yet there are major strengths in Cullen's attempt to reconcile the tensions inherent in being black and Christian and a poet. Cullen's pain is complex and permeates this 600-page text. He is ever the "dark child of sorrow."
What is exciting about this book is the availability of Cullen's previously uncollected poems, one of which provides the stirring title for the collection:
And I am somewhere worlds away
In God's rich autumn tinted lanes,
Where, heart at ease from life's dismay,
My soul's high song beats back the rains.
Cullen's frequent use of rain imagery becomes a metaphor for primal, atavistic urges as well as for his awe of nature's power and beauty. In his long poem, "Heritage," which evokes images of Africa while teasing himself and readers with the irony behind his persistent and unanswered question, "What is Africa to me?", we find Cullen ever the restless, backsliding Christian wrestling with his demons:
So I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night --
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall.
Nature, or rain, works against his Christian restraint and urges him on:
"Come and dance the Lover's Dance!"
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day.
Cullen is even willing to test his minister father's lack of understanding about the son's racial urges:
Why should he deem it pure mischance
A son of his is fain
To do a naked tribal dance
Each time he hears the rain?
Ambiguity appears to be the main emotion and dramatic tension in Cullen's work. Some explanation, perhaps, can be drawn from Cullen's orphan status and the uncertainties surrounding his birth. It has been reported that his grandmother brought the young Countee LeRoy Porter to New York from his birthplace in Louisville, Ky. Cullen was adopted by the Rev. Frederick Ashbury Cullen and his wife, founders of the Salem Methodist Church in Harlem. Other information about Cullen's family has been lost. Other uncertainties and ambiguities abound in his life. Although he married twice, Cullen remained childless and several scholars have discussed his apparent homosexuality. Early, however, too quickly dismisses such matters in a casual footnote. CULLEN WAS also ambiguous on racial issues. He preferred the image of the black man as a suffering Christ figure, as in the long poem "The Black Christ," and the dark woman as tragic victim, as in "Ballad of the Brown Girl" and in "The Medea," his prose adaptation. Cullen was also ambiguous about his debt to British Romantic poets. It is well known how deeply Cullen was influenced by John Keats, and two poems here resurrect Keat's poetry and spirit. Yet Cullen's near satirical verse "Uncle Jim" reveals a counter folk influence on his work, one that Cullen has not come to full terms with. "White folks is white," Jim warns, and the poet finds his own mind wandering to consider the probable truth of that assertion as he enjoys the company of another male:
I wonder why here at his side,
Face-in-the-grass with him,
My mind should stray the Grecian urn
To muse on uncle Jim.
Clearly, Jim and Keats are rivals for the poet's attention and affection.
By exploring these ambiguities rather than solving them Cullen becomes engaged in the major issues of his time. His awareness of class conflicts and the betrayal of love and his flirtation with the live-for-today ideals of carpe diem make Cullen an astute social critic, particularly in his only novel, One Way to Heaven. The novel tells the story of Sam and Mattie Lucas who first meet at a revival. Sam's faked conversion earns him Mattie's undying love. The two work out their religious differences against the glamorous social life of Harlem that is presided over by Constancia Brandon, who has employed Mattie as her maid. Cullen's satirical novel allows him to poke fun at both the honest poor and the pretentious rich. The novel has some hilarious moments when the author exposes the sham of Harlem glamor in the face of Sam's and Mattie's struggle to live as good Christians. But Sam and Mattie are just as shallow in their use of religion as Constancia Brandon is in her glittery secular world. At the end, Sam fakes a religious revelation at the moment of his death and allows Mattie to continue a disillusioned life.
The various themes of ambiguity and irresolution offered in My Soul's High Song allow for some surprises in Cullen's prose and poetry. His accomplished sonnets and ballads offer curious twists in meter and rhyme. Cullen, however, is more a poet than a prose stylist. Today's readers are still challenged to resolve the questions Cullen raises: "What is Africa to me?" and what did God intend for black poets so skillfully endowed with the gift of song? Through the rich material and generous selections presented in My Soul's High Song we are grateful for the chance to renew the quest Countee Cullen set for himself and for us. Melvin Dixon is the author of the novel "Trouble the Water" and the forthcoming "Vanishing Rooms."