If We Must Die, by Claude McKay is a sonnet written during the Harlem Renaissance period; a period where there was a flowering of African-American literature and art, (1919- mid 1930s). Though the Harlem Renaissance period was a time of thriving people and culture in the African-American community, prejudice was still very much active; something African-Americans knew first hand. There was still much discrimination put against them; something that this poem happens to exhibit. This poem is about dying with a purpose; not without honor, but rather one that even their enemies will bow down to.
Since everyone has to die, why not let it be meaningful? The speaker says that his race will either die fighting, or die trying. There will be no simply ‘accepting’ their fate. They have a purpose in this world, and they intend to fulfill it. McKay conveys this message through expressive words and vivid imagery. It is a poem that moves the reader; through similes, repetition, imagery, rhythm scheme, and symbolism one can find that the narrator feels very strongly about dying. Similes play an important part in helping to decipher the meaning the narrator is trying to say.
In the first sentence, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs… ” the speaker is comparing their dying to the way in which a hog dies. Hogs and pigs are often slaughtered for their meat; a ruthless way to die. Pigs do not get to decide how they die; other people make that decision. Hogs in particular die in a powerless way. Male pigs are first castrated, which is often viewed as weak, and then sentenced to death. The narrator wants him and his men to die manly, and face death head on; the complete opposite of how a hog dies. “…Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot… Pigs are generally kept in fenced areas; unable to escape the predators that come to kill them. “.. While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, making their mock at our accursed lot…” The speaker does not want to be mocked; he will not be mocked, like the hungry dogs that mock their prey. The dogs know the hogs cannot escape; therefore it will be an easy kill. The speaker has much more respect and integrity for him and his race, then to simply die confined to a shameful spot, especially if someone has ‘chosen’ the way he will die.
Repetition and imagery are also crucial in explaining this message the narrator is presenting. The use of repetition helps the reader understand how important something is; by repeating a single word or sentence that constantly pops out, it will be viewed as important, or at least given attention to. McKay often writes “If we must die… ” throughout the poem, a sentence that heightens the emotional impact of death. Everyone knows they have to die eventually, by repeating this line, the speaker is talking if or when they die.
He is putting emphasis on how they will die; which is through a fight, or in any way that deems to be noble; “There precious blood will not be shed in vain. ” Imagery only strengthens what repetition has been set to do; it intensifies the impact of the poet’s words; we begin to picture what they are saying, then simply reading what they are telling us they feel. Through phrases such as “precious blood”, “hungry dogs”, “open grave”, “pressed to the wall”, and “fighting back” McKay constantly allows us to vividly imagine exactly what he is saying, and how he feels.
Rhyme scheme reinforces the central idea or theme that similes create, and repetition and imagery help explain. In Claude McKay’s If We Must Die, he uses the traditional ABAB as the external rhyme scheme in his poem; by rhyming the last word in each first and third sentence, along with the last word in each second and fourth sentence. For example, hogs the last word in the first sentence, rhymes with the last word in the third sentence; dogs. This rhyming is consistent throughout the entire poem.
Each last word in a sentence rhymes with each last word in every other and/or the next sentence; blow and foe, brave and grave, pack and back. By using rhyme scheme, McKay has only impacted his message on the reader much more strongly. Symbolism is perhaps the most important technique used in the poem. Symbolism uses an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. Dogs in the poem are used to represent the speaker’s enemy. McKay describes them as “mad hungry dogs” that mock their prey. At first they are depicted as just ‘hungry animals’, ut soon are morphed into monstrous, vicious, murderous, killing beasts at the end. McKay has presented the enemy as something evil or inhuman. By using “vicious dogs” as a symbol for his enemies, McKay has shown us just how strongly he feels about his enemies, and people against him. In conclusion, Claude McKay’s If We Must Die, has a firm impact on the reader. The poem is a moving piece that is sure to elicit some type of emotional response from the reader; words such as “inglorious”,” precious blood”, or “fighting back” only strengthen the final reaction.
The poem touches on a subject that everybody will have to face; death. More specifically, it talks about the speaker’s race, and how they will not die without a fight; “o kinsmen! We must meet the common foe! ” They will die a noble death; “… though far outnumbered, let us show us brave. ” McKay uses many examples and techniques to demonstrate this; similes, repetition, imagery, rhyme scheme, and symbolism. Each style fortitude’s the other; repetition and imagery further explain what similes and symbolism create, while rhyme scheme reinforces everything that is there.
The narrator of this poem will not go down with out a fight, and will not die an un-noble death. Even if they are stronger, or outnumbered there will be no giving up; “And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! ” The narrator will die in battle, or die trying; “What though before us lies the open grave? ” He and his race have a purpose in this world. They will not die at the hands of someone else; “…Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! ” Their death will cause even their enemies to look at them in awe.