If We Must Die is a poem written by a famous Jamaican-American writer and poet Claude McKay. The piece is very symbolical. Its main idea is the promotion of heroism and bravery. McKay masterly uses many elements of poetry and creates vivid images to convey his thoughts and feelings. The poem If We Must Die has autobiographical motifs. It appeared during the period of violence against the black people, including McKay, in the US, but one cannot apply it only to that situation; the main idea of the poem is universal. This essay will provide the analysis of the techniques used by McKay in the verse If We Must Die, the basic narrative of the poem, its emotional tone, psychological movement, and its central images.
Firstly, the poem If We Must Die is very symbolical and two-dimensional. The author uses the image of a hog that is hunted and penned by a bunch of hungry dogs to show an inglorious death: “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” (McKay). The author uses such image to convey the helplessness and despair experienced by a person terribly subservient to the circumstances that are more powerful and influential than the will of a single person. McKay wants an individual to be greater than the destiny. He believes that the death must be noble as people deserve it: “O let us nobly die” (McKay). The author understands and appreciates the value of a human life calling the blood precious: “So that our precious blood may not be shed in vain” (McKay). He personifies the human fears and other matters objected by people calling them monsters. An individual, who manages to conquer the destiny, to rise above the circumstances, to swim against the stream, will be respected even by these monsters after his or her death: “then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us through dead” (McKay).
Moreover, the poem If We Must Die is very humanistic. The author addresses it to the whole mankind calling them “kinsman”. He raises the moral issue of bravery when facing the death and exhorts the readers to be courageous. He personifies death using a very interesting image of a common foe armed and fighting. According to McKay, a man is doomed to lose this battle but his sacred duty is to fight. He uses many images to call the death, such as “the murderous, cowardly pack”. The character of McKay’s poem is not afraid of the death; “the open grave” does not bother him.
The narration of the poem bases on the comparison and contrast of the two scenes. The first is the scene of a hog rounded by hungry and mad dogs. The general mood of the part of the verse where McKay depicts the scene of a hog that ingloriously dies is tragic and condemnatory because the author does not want the readers to live and die like this. The second scene is the image of the battlefield where an army is fighting with the one of a common foe, which is more numerous, and the former army has no chances to win but continues to struggle and is going to die nobly: “pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back” (McKay). People depicted in the second part of the poem are brave and fair while their foe is murderous and cowardly.
The emotional tone of the poem is very life-asserting and encouraging. The main idea conveyed by the author is the importance of insubordination to the various life circumstances and the necessity to be a noble and brave individual in all situations even when facing the death. The characters depicted by McKay in the poem If We Must Die are very active and deedful. This feature makes the emotional tone of the whole poem optimistic. In addition, the verse is full of humanity; McKay understands how valuable the life of an every single individual is.
The combination of two opposite scenes comprised the psychological side of the poem. The movement from despair and helplessness to energy and the desire to act is also the psychological movement of the poem. The impassivity of people facing the death and the understanding of the necessity to fight is not inherent to everyone. An individual comes to this conclusion through meditation and experience. Only a mature person can possess such high moral qualities as the characters of the poem, according to McKay. The author also means that an individual may doubt and feel fear and uncertainty, but he or she can overcome these feelings and join the army of brave people who want to fight with “the common foe” and die nobly. Even though the author mentions death several times in the poem, and some readers can think that he prefers noble death to life, the verse is very life-asserting. The characters of McKay’s poem love life and want to enjoy every minute of it. They live because they act; and their lives last as long as they do something to change the world around them, to invent and impose their own rules. The author’s love of life is obvious even in the title of the poem. The phrase “If we must die” displays a condition. The author would prefer never to die but if it is impossible, he would like to die nobly.
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McKay uses many elements of poetry, such as imageries, symbolism, rhyme, hyperbole, metaphors, and personification. He uses mostly visual imaginaries, for example, hunted and penned hogs, and “mad and hungry dogs”. The symbolism of the poem is possible to find in the scenes with the hogs and the army fighting with the foe. The author does not mean that a person could be killed by a pack of dogs or that the readers should take weapons, join some army and fight with the outnumbering foe until death.
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