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Literary Analysis of if We Must Die by Claude Mckay

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1919, the year the poem was written, was a very difficult time. World War I had just ended, and several troops were returning home. At the same time the Black community was facing high rates of racially charged brutality. The Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings from city to city. From this struggle Claude McKay wrote, If We Must Die, igniting a fire in the Black community.

The poem itself is written as a Sonnet. They are written in iambic pentameter. ‘Iambic’ refers to the pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. One iamb is an unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. ‘Pentameter’ tells you how many iambs you’ll find per line. ‘Penta’ means five – so there are five iambs per line. Iambic pentameter. Here’s an example from the first line: If we | must die|, let it | not be | like hogs. Composed of fourteen lines, a sonnet form is indicative of the meaning. Sonnet’s themselves are usually used by poets to evoke religious devotion or romantic love and/or passion. McKay utilizes the sonnets form to convey these same emotions of devotion and passion within his own piece.

In addition, for the whole poem the rhyme scheme would be: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Usually, sonnets include a ‘turn.’ This is a moment in the poem where the theme or the tone changes in a surprising way. In ‘If We Must Die,’ the turn comes at line 9, where the rhyme scheme switches from CD to ED. The speaker calls his kinsmen to action: ‘O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!’ This helps to convey the overall purpose of the poem is to serve as a call to action. This eludes to the meaning. This call to action helps us to visualize the sonnet as a sort of speech. One that is given by a commander to his troops before a monumental battle. The poem itself is composed of very short lines. Understanding the nature of this kind of speeches draws light to the meaning as to why McKay chose to write the poem this way. These short lines allow for many pauses when reading the poem out loud. These pauses create a sense of poise, while building a sense of suspense as each of his troops hold on to his words as if it is the last they will hear. Just about every modern movie with a battle scene includes a leader who delivers a pre-battle speech inspiring and empowering his people to persevere and fight. We picture the speaker of this poem like the leaders in those movies: a brave, noble, inspiring leader fighting on the honorable, but underdog team. Though we don’t know who the speaker and his allies are, or why they are fighting, we’re confident that there’s a lot at stake, and our speaker is on the right side.

Furthermore, McKay utilizes tools such as symbolism and word play to best spread the overall meaning of his piece. The dog metaphor, in line 3, decreased the humanity of the enemies by showing how they were neither noble hunters, nor honorable ones. McKay uses a different kind of tool to show how noble and honorable the speaker and his allies are the analogy. The speaker insists that his allies not die like hogs, in line 1. That is to say, he prefers that they die like men. As well, pigs don’t usually die in any way that seems noble. They are usually slaughtered without sympathy. Also, ‘hog’ is a specific kind of pig. Hogs are castrated, male pigs, and castration is a symbol for powerlessness. The speaker is trying to encourage his allies to manly, noble, and brave in the face of death, and hogs are the opposite in the speaker’s eyes.

Additionally, McKay has recurring themes throughout the poem to create meaning. The biggest one being Nobility/Honor. Honor runs throughout the other themes of ‘If We Must Die,’ and it is the underlying idea of the poem. The speaker feels that on his side are the ‘good guys,’ because they are honorable men and will only fight honorably. The fact is, they are not fighting for survival; they already know they will die. They will fight honorably so that their death will not be meaningless, and so that, maybe, their enemy will honor them in death.

In conclusion, Mckay’s poem provides a good glimpse of his beliefs. Throughout the poem, he states repeatedly that blacks must be willing to die for their rights. This contrasts with some African-American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, who believed that good hearted white people would help the black people that the blacks should accept their help. McKay’s more militant approach is seen in the phrases, “if we must die,” “let us nobly die,” “Honor us though dead” and “Pressed to the wall, dying.” McKay uses all the readers’ senses to best create the meaning and scene he is wanting to convey.

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