Study Guide

If We Must Die Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Dramatic pauses are key here and in the poem. It's an inspiring call to action. You should definitely check out the audio recording of McKay reading the poem in his Jamaican accent. McKay used to write in his native dialect. Here is an example of a line from his poem "A Midnight Woman to the Bobby:" "Ko 'pon you' jam samplatta nose." The line comes out in standard English to mean something like, "Look at your flat, sandal nose." It just doesn't sound that good in standard English. Likewise, "If We Must Die" comes alive when it's read out loud.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The clause "If we must die" is repeated twice in the poem, so it's a natural choice for a title. The title and the repeated clauses drive home the desperation of the situation. There is no choice for the speaker and his kinsmen. But then again, there is. Even though they are going to die, the kinsmen can choose how they die. McKay is saying that even in the bleakest of times, we can find an opportunity to live with free will and dignity.

  • Setting

    When we read this poem, we picture a crowd of exhausted soldiers sitting on the ground. Their arms rest on their knees; their heads hang low. After a moment of depressing silence, out from the soldiers steps a man sweating and bloodied. The man pauses and looks around. He nods at the men with sympathy, because he's tired too. However, unlike the others, he has not lost heart.

    The speaker launches into a speech that recognizes their desperate situation, but refuses to accept defeat. He starts to draw out their emotions, picking at their pride. Their heads lift a little higher with every sentence the speaker says. Before you know it, they are all on their feet and ready to face their enemy bravely, though they will all surely die.

  • Speaker

    Just about every modern movie with a battle scene includes a leader who delivers a pre-battle speech inspiring and empowering his people to persevere and fight. You've seen it in everything from Braveheart to Independence Day to Avatar. And we get an incredible and inspiring (and not at all cheesy) version from the speaker of "If We Must Die." We picture the speaker of this poem like the leaders in those movies: a brave, noble, inspiring leader fighting on the honorable but underdog team. Though we don't know who the speaker and his allies are, or why they are fighting, we're confident that there's a lot at stake, and our speaker is on the right side.

    How do you picture the speaker of "If We Must Die"?

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    This one isn't a real toughie. Though the slightly old-fashioned language could slow an inexperienced reader down, it's written to inspire readers, not to confuse them.

  • Calling Card

    Revolutionary Sonnet

    McKay's sonnets are very similar to Countee Cullen's ballads. Both poets took traditional, English poetic forms and injected them with a mix of universal themes and very specific racial tensions. It's an experiment to test whether European-American culture can coexist with African-American culture. McKay wrote this poem during a very violent and tense time in American history, and his revolutionary spirit shines through. The poet doesn't want to be too obvious about whom he is angry with or who he thinks is against him, but this vague language makes it all the more universal.

  • Form and Meter

    Shakespearean Sonnet

    There are lots of different ways to write a sonnet, which is basically just a particular kind of short poem. Shakespeare's sonnets have a very specific form, which McKay borrowed in "If We Must Die." Shakespearean sonnets have several things in common:

    1. They are 14 lines long.
    2. They are written in iambic pentameter. Before you fall asleep at your computer, let us explain: "iambic" refers to the pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. One iamb is an unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. "Pentameter" tells you how many iambs you'll find per line. "Penta" means five – so there are five iambs per line. Iambic pentameter. Here's an example from the first line: If we | must die|, let it | not be | like hogs
    3. Usually, they include a feature called a "turn." This is a moment in the poem where the theme or the tone changes in a surprising way. In "If We Must Die," the turn comes at line 9, where the speaker calls his kinsmen to action: "O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!"
    4. The first twelve lines rhyme in alternating pairs. To show how this works, we can assign a letter to each rhyme. We'll show you how it works for the first eight lines:

      If we must die – let it not be like hogs (A)
      Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, (B)
      While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, (A)
      Making their mock at our accursed lot. (B)
      If we must die – oh, let us nobly die, (C)
      So that our precious blood may not be shed (D)
      In vain; then even the monsters we defy (C)
      Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! (D)

      For the whole poem the rhyme scheme would be: ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
    5. See those last two letters at the end (the GG)? That's the last important thing to know about the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. They always end with two rhyming lines, one right after the other. We call this a rhyming couplet. Here's the couplet from the end of "If We Must Die":

      Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, (G)
      Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! (G)
  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Dogs

    In "If We Must Die," McKay represents the enemy in several ways, but especially as dogs. He uses the image of a vicious pack of dogs in order to stir up the instinctual fears of his readers/listeners. These dogs are hunting as a pack and cornering their prey. The dogs are first depicted as hungry (a perfectly good reason to hunt), but they seem to morph into vicious, amoral, killing beasts by the end. Throughout the poem, McKay is presenting the enemies as inhuman.

    • Line 3: The speaker describes his enemies as "mad and hungry dogs." By associating his human enemies with dogs, the speaker is using an extended metaphor. This extended metaphor gives us the message that the speaker's enemies are crazed, vicious, and less than human. The dogs also serve as a symbol of "unfair" fighting, but that shows up later.
    • Line 4: The dogs mock their prey. This might be more frightening than just plain hunting. First we thought that the dogs were hungry and needed to eat. Most people aren't freaked out by nature videos of lions hunting to feed their cute baby lion cubs, right? But these dogs are actually mocking their prey. If you're hungry, you don't cruelly play with your food.
    • Line 7: The speaker calls the enemies "monsters" – not dogs, monsters. The enemies are so terrible that wild dogs are too "human" for the speaker, and he starts portraying them as unworldly monsters.
    • Line 9: Now the enemies are called "the common foe." It seems like the speaker is trying to take a little air out of that inflated, scary image that he blew up. The enemy is a foe; that's not too scary (compared to bloodthirsty dogs or monsters). People are listening and thinking, "Hey, you know what? Maybe we can beat these guys."
    • Line 13: Though the speaker has been deflating the dog metaphor, he brings it back in the end. This time the enemy is "murderous, cowardly pack." "Pack" recalls the image of the pack of hungry dogs in line 3. By calling the enemy a "cowardly pack," our speaker has shown them as too dishonorable to fight fairly. This makes them a little more "human" if you have a low opinion of dogs; or it makes them less "human" if you have a high opinion of humanity. Nevertheless, the dog metaphor is reworked in order to show us how inhumane the enemies are.

    Hogs

    The dog metaphor decreased the humanity of the enemies by showing how they were neither noble hunters, nor honorable ones. McKay uses a different kind of tool to show how noble and honorable the speaker and his allies actually are: the analogy. The speaker insists that his allies not die like hogs. That is to say, he prefers that they die like men. You might not know it, but pigs don't usually die in any way that seems noble. It's enough to make you a vegetarian. Also, "hog" is a specific kind of pig. Hogs are castrated, male pigs, and castration is a symbol for powerlessness. The speaker is trying to encourage his allies to manly, noble, and brave in the face of death, and hogs are the opposite in the speaker's eyes.

    • Line 1: Hogs don't really get to choose the way they die, especially if they are being hunted by a pack of wild beasts. That's why the speaker doesn't want his allies to die like hogs.
    • Line 2: Pigs are generally kept in pigpens (fenced in areas). The downside of keeping pigs in a pen is that they can't escape predators that get into the pen. They are powerless to defend themselves and they are totally trapped. Also, pigpens are filthy places. Someone would have to think hard to name a more "inglorious spot."

    Christian Imagery

    Since "If We Must Die" is about dying a noble, meaningful death, it's not surprising that a bit of Christian imagery pops up. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is a prime example of death made meaningful – though he was killed by his enemies, his death is seen as a noble sacrifice through which all Christians are redeemed from sin.

    • Lines 6-7: The speaker says that he doesn't want his allies' "precious blood" to be "shed / In vain. "[P]recious blood" sounds a bit like biblical language, and brings to mind images of Jesus Christ being crucified.
    • Sex Rating

      G

      There's no steaminess in this poem to speak of, though if this poem were a movie, definite hints of violence might lead to a rating around PG or R.