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Analyzing Thematic Elements in Claude McKay’s Poem If We Must Die

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Being a fan of literature and an amateur poet myself, I have elected to analyze one of my favorite poems, “If We Must Die”, authored by Claude McKay. The poem arises from a turbulent period marked by crisis in America during the Red Summer of 1919, yet gives birth to a legacy of courage and hope despite odds. This poem is a literary diamond for it was forged from the heat of strife and watered by the shedding of “precious blood”. Three thematic elements emerge from this poem: apparent defeat, valiant effort, and solidarity.

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Apparent defeat: The signs of defeat outlined in the poem are evoked by the images of trapped hogs, outnumbering, bloodshed, and the open grave. To the human eye, the lesser of both clashing forces has no hope. On the other hand, the mad, hungry dogs and monsters further project a fearful perspective as the speaker employs the language of a chase or hunt. Intent on making a killing, the dogs pursue unrelentingly the desired game. Because of the adversary’s overpowering strength and savagery, the speaker sees himself dwarfed in comparison and near-vanquished. Penned, surrounded, and pressed to the wall are restricted positions which indicate limited latitude. Because of the narrowness of width to move the limbs, the chances at warding off the attackers are diminished.

Far from being a pessimistic, defeatist poem, “If We Must Die” shows a preponderant determination to live; for why continue fighting when all is already lost and not a hope exists? Although “if” is innately negative and initially sets the tone for the poem, it simply states the contingency of death while active measures are taken to slow death’s approach. By the end of the poem, death’s definiteness is never confirmed. There is neither passivity nor resignation in this battle. “(F)ighting back” and “deal(ing) one deathblow” are pugnacious verbs which shed light on the martial nature of the confrontation. Apparent disadvantages and weaknesses do not faze the speaker and his compatriots. The unit has already been beaten down by countless blows yet the brothers in arms still put up a laudable fight where the end is to struggle manly and nobly. Although animal strength overarches that of the human, the speaker has the will to believe that his teammates could muster enough force to strike one deathblow which ends the fight. Inspiring man’s heart in time of adversity is not an easy feat, but these words can stir and embolden the faint-hearted, awakening the lion within.

The poem heralds a call to all and sundry to mount their strength so that a worthy battle may be waged. When a people fight against a common enemy, it is well known that the psychological bond among them grows, deepens, and strengthens. The pronouns “we” and “our” speak volumes in this poem. “We” denotes a unit of people working together and “our” is the possessive pronoun of a collective body, hence the whole fight is by mutual assent – the goal is shared and the effort is a cooperative to withstand the enemy. Other words such as “common foe” and “kinsmen” highlight the same point of camaraderie and solidarity. The connection is almost familial, as the men’s cumulative endeavors help resist the enemy.

The opposing forces, characterized as either human or animalistic, throw in relief salient differences in nature. Throughout the bloody hunt, the oppressor is dehumanized. The bestial pack capitalizes on the feebleness of the men’s exertion. Nevertheless, those attacked reject the animalized label and choose to retain their humanity and humaneness. The team call themselves “kinsmen” – a relationship more intimate than companions and defined on the basis on shared blood. The fighters in the poem war “like men” because they consider themselves as worthy of dignity and respect. The men even expect to receive a posthumous award of honor from their rivals.

Many apparent difficulties can indeed tower in one’s mind as an unconquerable adversary yet McKay affirms that through valiant and stalwart effort, coupled with an unbending hope that victory is attainable. This poem is relevant because of the determination to never give up on making a courageous come-back. In the analysis of the poem “If We Must Die”, Claude McKay outlines the possible reactions of humans in adversity: aggressing or fighting back. The poem sums up some highly regarded human virtues such as sedulity, diligence, and bravery. At the same time, some vices in human nature tarnish the bejeweled poem such as mercilessness, bloodlust, cowardice, greed, antagonism, violence, and fear. McKay takes a discriminating look at human nature and at man’s tendency to yield to overwhelming adversity, however, he maintains a strong, fighting spirit with the feeblest exertions may still make a telling difference between life and death.

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