McKay is known for his poetry based around the lives of the Black community, both in New York, particularly Harlem and in Jamaica. ‘If We Must Die’ is one of many that delves into the complexities of resistance, power, and social justice/injustice.
The poem begins with the speaker addressing his “kinsmen,” telling them they need to avoid the fate of hogs. They do not want to spend the rest of their short lives in a pen, waiting to be slaughtered at any moment. This metaphor is a complex one, but it alludes to oppression, control and injustice. The speaker is seeking out a way to fight back against this fate. He, along with the rest of the Black community he’s speaking to, are not going to let themselves be torn down. They are going to protest the historical and contemporary racial and social injustices and fight for a better life for themselves.
You can read the full poem here.
‘If We Must Die’ by Claude McKay is a fourteen-line Shakespearean sonnet that is structured in the form which has come to be synonymous with the poet’s name. It made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In the case of ‘If We Must Die’ the turn transition in altered, it occurs between the first eight lines and the concluding six. This is traditionally where the turn in Petrarchan or Italian sonnets is.
McKay makes use of several poetic techniques in If We Must Die. These include alliteration, enjambment, metaphor, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. It can be seen in phrases likes “If we must die, O let us nobly die,” in which the word, and imagery around the world, “die” is repeated. The phrase “If we must die” actually appears word for word twice in the poem. At the beginning of lines one and five, marking the starts of the two quatrains.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “must meet” in line nine and “deal,” “death-blow” in line eleven.
Metaphor, or a comparison between two, unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. For example, in the first quatrains, the speaker uses trapped hogs as a metaphor for oppression, a state he doesn’t want “us” to get trapped in.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a few examples in ‘If We Must Die,’ such as the transitions between lines six and seven as well as seven and eight.
Analysis of If We Must Die
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
In the first quatrain of ‘If We Must Die’ the speaker begins by telling the listeners, his kinsmen (aka, the Black community which McKay played an important role in) that they should not be “be like hogs”. The mood is rousing and inspirational. It is a call to action, encouraging the listeners, whoever they may be, to avoid cowardly actions and techniques of avoidance that might in the end only benefit their oppressors.
The speaker does not want his listeners to be hunted and penned up ingloriously. It is important that they fight back against what is clearly a metaphor for oppression. The scenario is furthered through the introduction of hungry dogs” that “bark” and “mock at our accursed lot”.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
In the second quatrains, the speaker reuses the phrase “If we must die”. This time though, he adds that if they are going to die, he hopes they’ll die “nobly” with honor. They can’t accomplish this feat if they are trapped like hogs. “We” must stand up and fight back so that when “our” blood is on the ground it is not in vain.
He hopes that through “our” efforts to be seen and heard, and respected. Then, that the monsters that killed, or want to kill, they feel as though they should “honor us though dead!”
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
The final section of the poem is six lines long. The speaker addresses his “kinsmen” clearly in the first line. He encourages them to stand up and meet their “common foe” together. It is through their numbers and unity that they are going to show their bravery ad determination. He hopes, that this will lead them to a victory as well. They’ll deal a “death-blow” to the foe that is oppression.
They will, “Like men,” face the “murderous, cowardly pack” and face the “open grave”. These things are inevitable, what’s left is to determine how they’re going to fight back. Will they allow themselves to be slaughtered and controlled like hogs? Or will they turn, stand together and demand a better life? One in which, the speaker likely hopes, they won’t have to keep fighting.