Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Kathy Lou Schultz joined PoemTalk producer and host Al Filreis to talk about Claude McKay’s widely anthologized sonnet, “If We Must Die” (1919). Its content advocates counterviolence in response to racist violence; its form is the exquisitely constrained Shakespearean sonnet, aligned with English poetic mastery. Does pushing through this formal constraint bring McKay’s speaker toward freedom or fatedness? Does the sonnet as a formal choice befit a cultural inside or an outside?
In Distant Reading, Peter Middleton describes reading a poem as though it has a “long biography.” This approach involves “mining what is available of the aggregative textual archive that composes the textual memory of the poem, its showing in magazines, performance, anthologies, its construal in reviews and commentaries and other treatments” (23).
It has always been assumed that Claude McKay's sonnet, "If We Must Die" - a poem calling for counter-violence as a response to racist hatred in the context of the 1919 race riots in U.S. cities - was later recited by Winston Churchill on the BBC (and/or in a speech before the House of Commons) as a World War II-era rallying cry for Britons. McKay himself later said (in the late 40s, by which time his political views had changed) that he felt the poem to be universal - and was not about race. If indeed Churchill recited it and it could be used--presumably with pride and affirmation from its author--to rally the British against the Germans, then its historical, national/ethnic specificity would be in question.
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, 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 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!
The Shakespearean sonnet--a strategic choice of form by McKay--would seem to endorse the notion of Churchill's use of the poem. After all, he chose on other occasions to buck up beset Britain by reminding them of their bard who believed in the green isle as sceptered in noblest, complexest high forms. Defense by poetic rhetoric.
I've for some time tried to find the recording of the speech in which Churchill quotes McKay's poem. No luck. I tried again recently, with some help from Emily Harnett. No luck still. We did find a footnote in a book by David Caplan that seems to conclude that Churchill's use of the poem is a myth. Here is a PDF copy of Caplan's note.