Though the speaker of "If We Must Die" doesn't just come out and say it, we get the impression that a battle is raging. The speaker urges his allies to fight their enemies bravely, though they will die in the effort. The battle is certainly uneven, and the first lines of the poem bring up images of cornered victims being hunted by their enemy. McKay actually uses images of hunting throughout the poem. Hunting is a very complicated ritual – yes, a ritual. Hunting has been a ritual as far as the record goes back, in that humans (usually men) killed animals according to special rules that respected nature and her resources. Proper hunting respects the animal victim. In "If We Must Die," McKay portrays the enemies as abandoning the nobility of hunting (or war), as if to say, "They don't play by the rules!" The enemies use overwhelming force and mock their victims. Despite the uneven playing field, the speaker calls his allies to fight nobly and never give up.
Questions About Warfare
- How does hunting create an unfair situation for the hunted?
- Why does McKay use dogs as a symbol of dishonorable hunting?
- What does it mean for the dogs to hunt domesticated (a.k.a. tame) farm animals?
- How important is it that the dogs outnumber their victims?
Chew on This
The hunting metaphor is not accurate, because the hunted have the ability to fight back. McKay capitalizes on what isn't human, or compassionate, about dogs to villainize the speaker's enemy.