Sunday, October 13, 2013

ModPo 2013 #34 Humanity in Sonnet: On McKay's "If We Must Die"

Image of the Red Summer of 1919 from northamarillonow.

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 accursèd lot.
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!
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!

I liked how there was the constant question in the video discussion of "who is McKay addressing?" It definitely was not enough to identify his fellow persecuted African Americans. Indeed, this was not their language, the high Shakespearean sonnet. Rather, he is addressing those who are influenced by the long tradition of English, all the way back to the source. I liked that anecdote that Winston Churchill possibly used this very poem during World War 2. It is the kind of rousing rhetoric that he would actually use.

I also liked how it was mentioned that "if you destroy also destroy this." That word again: this. There was a reason that McKay chose this form. Racism destroys the best of what is human and, in this poem, it destroys the humanity that created the Shakespearean sonnet. I guess McKay had to choose something that would reflect what is considered art and thus, the traditional sonnet. Destroy this and destroy human attainments in history.

There may have been other ways to express this sentiment, I agree. "If We Must Die" is not very specific in its cause. Dying "like hogs" does not just necessarily refer to racist riots or the Red Summer of refers to any kind of war, actually, which reduces the "enemy" to a hog to be butchered or a mad dog. There is a senselessness to it in the end. Both sides are animals which have shrugged off their humanity. But I don't fault McKay for his choice. He felt that his cause was something universal, something of a call to not just comrades but to humanity. It might be in the same vein as Dylan's "Do not go gentle into that good night" which also used a traditional form. I can understand why the poet, faced with dissonance and senseless death, would turn towards the formal harmony of a sonnet. The rhymes and the cadence begs to be remembered.

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