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Countee Cullen's "Saturday's Child"

Updated on December 2, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Countee Cullen

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Saturday's Child"

Countee Cullen’s "Saturday’s Child" features a speaker who bemoans his situation, as he compares the circumstances of his birth to those of the wealthy. Refreshingly, instead of the disgusting whine that flows out from many poems with similar themes, this speaker manages to remain dignified, and even humble.

Saturday's Child

Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—
For implements of battle.

Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.

For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.

For I was born on Saturday—
"Bad time for planting a seed,"
Was all my father had to say,
And, "One mouth more to feed."

Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.

Interpretive Reading of Countee Cullen's "Saturday's Child"

Commentary

First Stanza: "Some are teethed on a silver spoon"

Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—
For implements of battle.

In the first stanza, the speaker begins the allusion to Mother Goose by transforming the "born with a silver spoon in his mouth" into "[s]ome are teethed on a silver spoon." The old saying means that the baby was lucky enough to born into wealth.

Continuing the wealthy baby allusion, the speaker further adds that instead of plastic rattle toys, the rich can afford to have the very stars in heaven clanging from their rattlers.

The speaker, however, was not born among the folks who can afford silver spoons and star-studded rattles; he was to "cut his teeth as the black raccoon" for battle gear. His poor bred situation, however, turned out to be great boon. Instead of riches in material value, he gains the riches of independence and became self-reliant, not depending on parents who could offer but little materially.

Second Stanza: "Some are swaddled in silk and down"

Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.

The speaker reports that some folk are born into comfortable even opulent circumstances. They experience the luxury of silk and down. Then he refers to Jesus Christ’s birth, a birth renowned for its poverty, even less well appointed than the speaker’s situation.

The speaker at birth was enshrouded in a "sackcloth gown" instead of silk. Although the speaker’s allusion to Christ is not yet clear, it does evoke negative vibrations as he states, he was born "On a night that was black as tar." The black as tar reference also alerts the reader to the speaker’s being a black man, but the merely associative likeness restricts the usual narrative from foisting victimhood on readers/listeners.

Black symbolically is negative while white is positive—having nothing to do with the illogical metaphors of black and white skin, but emotionally carrying the weight of oppression that sinks into the psyche of postmodern humanity.

Third Stanza: "For some, godfather and goddame"

For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.

Godparents are a bulwark against the possibility that the parents of the child will die before the child has reached adulthood and thereby able to fend for itself. Instead of the "opulent fairies" who attend the godhild of wealth, the speaker is attended only by "poverty" and "pain."

Fourth Stanza: "For I was born on Saturday"

For I was born on Saturday—
"Bad time for planting a seed,"
Was all my father had to say,
And, "One mouth more to feed."

Being born on Saturday, according to the Mother Goose nursery rime dictates that that child will "work[ ] hard for a living."

The speaker has remained painfully aware that he has not been born into a family of opulence. His own father lamented that his child’s birth signaled, "Bad time for planting a seed," and that now there was, "One mouth more to feed."

Fifth Stanza: "Death cut the strings that gave me life"

Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.

"Death" becomes the midwife who "cut the strings that gave [the speaker] life." The speaker suggests that instead of a trusting "middle wife" or physician, all this speaker’s parents could afford was "Death," a natural phenomenon.

The speaker is furthermore aware that death at birth would have been an ordinary occurrence; thus because he continued to live he has to contribute that reality to some reason. Because there is purpose for everything under the sun, the speaker wisely concludes that his circumstance of being born of a low-class birth has made him the strong warrior that he has become in the battles that continue on the earth.

" . . . not NEGRO POET"

About his own ventures in poetry, Countee Cullen has stated: "If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET."

Cullen determined to write genuine poetry, not political drivel; thus, he stated, "I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda." Fortunately for all lovers of genuine poetry, which simply gives the reader back his own heart-felt experience, Cullen confirmed this attitude in his poetry.

Propagandizing about race, gender, and class has all but vanquished the arts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries; if Cullen’s attitude had become the norm, undoubtedly, the situation would not have become so widespread and viciously entrenched.

Mother Goose's "Monday's child is fair of face"

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace;
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go;
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for its living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Reading of Mother Goose "Monday's Child"

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 6 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

    Thank you, Shyron. Yes, Cullen was quite a craftsman. He had a strong personality that did not fall for propagandizing a postmodern victimhood. He contributed to poetry not to the politics of race-baiting as so many modernists and postmodernists have done. Have a blessed day! And thanks again for the comment and kind words.

  • Shyron E Shenko profile image

    Shyron E Shenko 6 months ago from Texas

    Beautiful poetry Linda, I love how you described it.

    Blessings my friend.