Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Claude McKay: Two Sonnets

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!


Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Festus Claudius McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889, came to the US in 1912 to attend college, eventually ended up in New York and became one of the lights of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a militant atheist and flirted with communism, joining the IWW in 1919 and making a trip to the Soviet Union in 1922, but never joined the CPUSA. He wrote several novels as well as poetry. He died in 1948.


Mário R. Gonçalves said...

I do like the second poem. It puts in rich words the contradiction of 'love' and 'hate' for a country of permanent internal conflicts. And I am a convinced atheist too.

As for the first, no, I like a peaceful death, preferably in an inglorious spot, and reject that call to fight until the last breath - no cause is worth that. 'Fight back' is what has brought so much disgrace to mankind.

Anonymous said...

Timely poems, beautifully expressed.