‘The Tropics in New York’ by Claude McKay is an essential piece of poetry published during the Harlem renaissance. It was first published in 1920 in The Liberatore and was likely inspired by the poet’s memories of his home in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica.
The Tropics in New York Claude McKay Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root, Cocoa in pods and alligator pears, And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit, Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs, Set in the window, bringing memories Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills, And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies In benediction over nun-like hills. My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze; A wave of longing through my body swept, And, hungry for the old, familiar ways, I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.
Explore The Tropics in New York
‘The Tropics in New York’ by Claude McKay is a beautiful and deeply sad poem about experiencing homesickness.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing ripe and unripe bananas, avocados, and more. All of these fruits are perfect specimens. They could all, the speaker notes, win a medal at a fair. He goes on, explicitly stating that the fruit reminds him of his homeland, Jamaica. He thinks about the creeks, sunrises, and skies. These are colorful in his memory, like the fruit. There is an implicit comparison to where he lives now, New York.
The poem concludes when the speaker is filled with homesickness and describes how he had to look away. His body was starving for his home, bringing him to tears.
Structure and Form
‘The Tropics in New York’ by Claude McKay is a three-stanza poem that is written in iambic pentameter. This means that the lines contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. The poet also chose to make use of a rhyme scheme of ABAB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. There is an example of a slant rhyme in this piece. That is, “memories” and “skies” in lines five and seven.
The poet makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Tropics in New York.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “green” and “ginger-root” in the first line and “dewy dawns” in the third line of the second stanza.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should evoke the reader’s senses. For example, “Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root, / Cocoa in pods and alligator pears.”
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by listing out a few items of fruit he sees. These include avocados, bananas, and ginger. He’s transported back to his past, as the next stanza explains, by their sight. He describes them as being “Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs.” The word “parish” in this line gives another hint as to where the speaker is describing.
It’s very likely that McKay considered himself the speaker in these lines, looking back on his own hometown in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica. He was born there and is now seeing a few sights that remind him of home.
Set in the window, bringing memories
Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
In benediction over nun-like hills.
The second stanza describes how the fruit brings “memories / Of fruit-trees laden with low-ringing rills.” The speaker is inspired by what he sees. He’s experiencing a beautiful kind of homesickness for a place that now seems very far away. Considering that McKay spent much of his adult life in New York, it’s easy to imagine how different the two places would be.
My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.
The speaker is so overwhelmed by the images of the fruit and of the places, sounds, tastes, and feelings they remind him of that he has to look away. He feels a “wave of longing through” his body and a hunger for “familiar ways.” This suggests that the place he’s living in as he writes this poem or experiences these feelings is different. It is unfamiliar and does not have the warmth that his home does.
The speaker is forced to turn from the fruit and break into tears. This might make the reader wonder what the speaker is doing so far from home if his homesickness is this strong. Or why it is that the speaker can’t return to what seems to be his favorite place.
The tone is one of longing and sorrow. The speaker spends part of the poem engaged in me moires of the past, but they only bring him tears at the end.
The purpose is to emphasize the differences between New York and Jamaica, where the poet is from. As well as explore the way that homesickness can move someone.
The meaning is that even the simplest things can remind one of home and bring on deep emotions. The speaker experiences this when he sees the exotic fruit in New York.
The speaker is likely meant to be Claude McKay himself. He was born in Clarendon Parish in Jamaica and spent much of his adult life in New York.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Snow Fairy’ should also consider reading some other Claude McKay poems.
- I Know My Soul – is a sonnet that discusses the importance of honesty.
- ‘Enslaved’ – the poet transforms sorrow and rage into a beautiful poem that explores segregation and oppression.
- ‘If We Must Die‘ – is addressed to the Black community advocating for courage and the strength to fight oppression.