21 Days/21 Poems: If We Must Die by Claude McKay

More poetry to celebrate National (US) Poetry Month.   Today, for 21 Days/21 Poems, I feature an anthem poem.  Pius Adesanmi, the Nigerian intellectual and critic, coined the term “anthem poetry” to represent the masterpieces or show pieces of a poet’s oeuvre.  By his definition, an anthem poem will have sustained numerous reading and “discoursing” over time.  It must, therefore, cover social, political, religious or moral considerations.

If We Must Die

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 accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, 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!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
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!

by Claude McKay

I’m quite sure that I’m a pacifist :).  But a good battle-cry gets my blood pumping and my mind racing.  I want to beat my chest, roar and grab the closest spear to skewer my enemies after I read an emotional cry for battle.  In reality, I will probably be lying on my bed staring into space!  This poem is similar to Henry V’s St. Crispin Speech in act IV scene iii of the play by Shakespeare.

Claude McKay wrote the poem in 1919 in response to the” pogroms being waged against black civilians and returning black soldiers across the US“. ( The link is to a really good article on McKay’s work).

Here is McKay on If We Must Die:

“Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted. We did not separate from one another gaily to spend ourselves in speakeasies and gambling joints. We stuck together, some of us armed, going from the railroad station to our quarters. We stayed in our quarters all through the dreary ominous nights, for we never knew what was going to happen. It was during those days that the sonnet, “If We Must Die,” exploded out of me. And for it the Negro people unanimously hailed me as a poet. Indeed, that one grand outburst is their sole standard of appraising my poetry. It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew. They were all agitated. Even the fourth waiter – who was the giddiest and most irresponsible of the lot, with all his motives and gestures colored by a strangely acute form of satyriasis – even he actually cried.” (from Modern American Poetry)

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889.  He emigrated to the United States in 1912.  He died in 1948.  Read more about McKay at Poets.org

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7 comments

  1. I read and posted about McKay’s poetry last week! What a powerful poem this one is. I like his other, softer poems too. But this one sure has the umph behind it. Wonderfully talented man.

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    • I will look up your post. Quite the poet he was. I think this is probably the strongest (in terms of sentiment) that he wrote.

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    • Thank you and glad you liked it. I like backstories when poets are willing to share the info. He sounds surprised that he was readily accepted as a poet.

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