If We Must Die Analysis by Claude McKay | Structure, Literary Devices, Summary and Analysis

If We Must Die Analysis: The poet was born in Jamaica on September 15, 1889. Claude McKay travelled to Harlem, New York, after publishing his first books of poetry. He established himself as a literary voice for social justice during the Harlem Renaissance.

He published his next poems in 1917 under the anonym Eli Edwards. More poems appeared in Pearson’s Magazine and the Liberator. The Liberator poems included “If We Must Die,” which became the voice of the oppressed in no time.

Students can also check the English Summary to revise with them during exam preparation.

McKay turned to the United States in 1921 and committed himself to various social and political issues prevalent at that time. He operated with the Universal Negro Improvement Association and continued to explore Communism and understand its concept in depth.

McKay’s viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the voice for the Harlem Renaissance’s backdrop and gained the deep respect of younger and rising black poets of that time.

Although he was an atheist initially, he took up Catholicism in the end years of his life, retreating from his ideals of Communism. He became an official American citizen in 1940.

McKay died of a heart attack in Chicago, Illinois, on May 22, 1948.

His work has been an inspiration for the struggle of the black Americans and set the war cry for them.

If We Must Die Analysis Structure

The poem is a Shakespearean sonnet of fourteen lines. The rhyming scheme employed in the poem is of the type ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Each line consists of two beats spread across five sets.

It is made of three four-line sets and an ending couplet. A couplet is a pair of successive lines of metre in poetry that follow a rhyming scheme.

If We Must Die Literary Devices

Enjambment is a speech figure where a line of poetry carries its idea or thought over to the next line without a grammatical pause. The use of enjambment can be seen in the lines, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,”.

Alliteration uses repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words close to each other. Alliteration is featured in the /h/ sound in “hogs,” hunted,” and “hungry.”

Caesura is the employment of metrical pause or breaks in a verse where one phrase ends and another line begins. The use of caesura divides out the poem’s opening phrase—”If we must die”—as particularly important and so prepares the reader for the return of that same phrase in “If we must die, O let us nobly die,”.

A metaphor is used to directly referring to one thing by mentioning another. The phrase “mad and hungry dogs” is an example of the use of a metaphor. It compares the dogs to the torture inflicting white.

A simile is a way of comparing two things directly. It uses words such as “like” and “as”. The phrase “like hogs” features the use of simile.

If We Must Die by Claude McKay

If We Must Die Summary

The poet wrote this poem during the Harlem Renaissance as a voice against the violence done on the blacks. This period was marked by the severe hardships endured by the black people of America.

The poet denounces racial violence and calls the black population to raise their voice against the injustices and inequalities mated to them.

The poem argues that drastic mortal acts of revolution are the only viable option for this oppressed group to claim their freedom back with their heads held high.

The poet puts forward the idea that they will not die without putting up a strong fight. They will not be weak and take death heads on like noblemen.

If We Must Die Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

“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.”

The poem starts with the idea that if the oppressed black people have to die, they should not die like “hogs”. They should fight for their cause and not give in to the brutality executed on them.

Hogs or pigs have the most unfateful death since they are slaughtered mercilessly for their meat.

He further urges his community to be rebellious. He mentions that he does not wish to be mocked.

The mention of the dogs brings forward the stark difference between a hunter and a hunted. Dogs fight till their last breath and never give up. They mock their prey and know that they are easy to kill.

Similarly, the poet highlights that his race should strive for their cause and not be mocked by the ones ready to prey on them.

Lines 5-8

“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!”

These lines reiterate the message of dying with honour. The poet embarks on the idea that their blood should not be lost. They will fight for their freedom and give their lives if they need to.

They should strive towards freedom with strong determination. Even the oppressors should feel a sense of respect towards their zeal and honour them.

They should not shed even a single drop of their blood meaninglessly, and their resolution should be powerful enough to be acknowledged even by their oppressors. Their bravery should set a milestone.

Their voice and struggle should be looked up to and be the benchmark for future generations.

By referring to the oppressors as “monsters”, he depicts the severity of the torture inflicted upon them. The white population was vicious towards black Americans.

Although this period witnessed a change towards the treatment of black Americans, it was only limited in the books. The reality was far from the change and was completely different.

Lines 9-14

“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 poet calls the people of his community to face the oppressors with might and conviction. Although they are more in number than the poet’s community, they should not submit to them but put up a strong fight.

He encourages them to take up the situation heads on and not be afraid. He says that if they have to die, they should die with a purpose and not get doomed in the ruins of time.

He wants his people to unite and fight together. He calls the white population a “murderous, cowardly pack” and highlights that they are inevitable and can be defeated.

The phrase “open grave” characterises the fact that the end of the struggle is inevitable death. The poet knows about the futility of the course of their struggle. He knows that the end will be met by death.

Although there is death stored for them, it should not deter them from persisting till the end.