Thoughts in a Zoo

By Countee Cullen 1903–1946 Countee Cullen
They in their cruel traps, and we in ours,   
Survey each other’s rage, and pass the hours   
Commiserating each the other’s woe,   
To mitigate his own pain’s fiery glow.   
Man could but little proffer in exchange   
Save that his cages have a larger range.   
That lion with his lordly, untamed heart   
Has in some man his human counterpart,
Some lofty soul in dreams and visions wrapped,   
But in the stifling flesh securely trapped.   
Gaunt eagle whose raw pinions stain the bars   
That prison you, so men cry for the stars!
Some delve down like the mole far underground,   
(Their nature is to burrow, not to bound),
Some, like the snake, with changeless slothful eye,   
Stir not, but sleep and smoulder where they lie.   
Who is most wretched, these caged ones, or we,   
Caught in a vastness beyond our sight to see?

Countee Cullen, “Thoughts in a Zoo” from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. Copyrights held by the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, administered by Thompson and Thompson, Brooklyn, NY.

Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991)

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Poet Countee Cullen 1903–1946

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Pets, Relationships

Poetic Terms Couplet

 Countee  Cullen


Countee Cullen was perhaps the most representative voice of the Harlem Renaissance. His life story is essentially a tale of youthful exuberance and talent of a star that flashed across the Afro-American firmament and then sank toward the horizon. When his paternal grandmother and guardian died in 1918, the fifteen-year-old Countee LeRoy Porter was taken into the home of the Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the pastor of Salem . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Pets, Relationships

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Couplet

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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