The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Questions on the Poetry of Claude MacKay

“If We Must Die”

1. What is the poem’s historical context? At what point in MacKay’s life was it written?

2. What is its poetic form? Into what sub-units is it divided?

3. Who is the poem’s “we”? What is the speaker advocating, literally and perhaps metaphorically?

4. Trace the poem’s development through each quatrain and the final couplet. Is it effectively organized to convey its message?

5. Comment on the sonnet’s language--diction, rhythm, rhymes, alliteration, assonance, anaphora (repitition), and imagery. How is each of these used to reinforce the speaker’s points?

6. Does MacKay’s call to face “like men . . . the murderous, cowardly pack” suggest anything about the gender of his intended audience?


1. How does the poet’s thought develop from section to section of the sonnet?

2. Is this poem divided differently than the previous sonnet, and if so, what purpose is served by its organization?

3. What is meant by, “the great life line of the Christian West,” and “the Black Land”? Why is the latter capitalized?

4. How does the speaker attempt to resolve his problem? Does the poem provide closure?

5. How does the use of the first person voice and its commentary on the speaker’s own emotions affect the poem’s tone? Does the personal quality add to the poem?

“My Mother” (an early poem)

1. What is the poem’s theme? What is its form?

2. Why does the speaker include the details he does? What do we learn about him and about his dying mother?

3. How does this poem differ from the others we have read?

“The Castaways” (a late poem)

1. What scene does the poem relate? What does the speaker wish to convey about himself?

2. How are the poem’s imagery and form used to convey its themes?

3. What does the final couplet add to the poem? What is the poem’s ultimate theme?

If you have time, look at “America,” “Outcast,” and “The Lynching.”

For the first two, consider the nature of the speaker’s ambivalence, how he resolves it, and how the poem’s features of language and style reinforce his message.

For “The Lynching,” consider which words are especially crucial in making the poet’s points. How does the poem differ from the three or four poems on the same subject we have already read?

Which aspects of its descriptions make the poem especially painful? What effect do you think the poet wanted his sonnet to have? Do you think he may have had a particular audience in mind?

Do you think MacKay is a good poet? Do you think he was wise to use the sonnet form? What are some special strengths of his verse?

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  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56