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McKay wrote “If We Must Die” in iambic pentameter. This means that every line in the poem contains five iambic feet, each of which consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the words “to-day” and “con-trol.” McKay’s use of iambic pentameter is appropriate, considering that he wrote the poem as an English sonnet. From the sixteenth century on, writers of English sonnets have almost unanimously written in iambic pentameter. The reason for this preference has primarily to do with line length. In English, lines with four feet or fewer tend to have a song-like meter, especially when the lines rhyme. By contrast, lines with five feet are just long enough to avoid having a sing-song quality, and instead give the verse a more refined feel. It’s for precisely this reason that iambic pentamer is sometimes referred to as “heroic verse.” Heroic verse is so called because its refined, even noble sound lends itself to the high seriousness often associated with epics and narratives about heroes. With this in mind, McKay’s use of iambic pentameter has an elevating effect, bringing a sense of moral seriousness to the cause of resistance advocated by the poem’s speaker.
Although the poem mostly adheres to strict iambic pentameter, several lines feature deviations from this metrical scheme. As an example of a subtle variation in the meter, consider the second quatrain (lines 5–8):
If we | must die, | O let | us no- | bly die,
So that | our pre- | cious blood | may not | be shed
In vain; | then e- | ven the mon- | sters we | de-fy
Shall be | con-strained | to hon- | or us | though dead!
The first, second, and fourth lines in this quatrain all use strict iambic pentameter. In the third line, however, the third foot has three syllables rather than two. This three-syllable foot is an anapest, which has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. The elongation of the middle foot has a subtle significance in the context of the quatrain. The speaker is talking about resisting his oppressors, whom he refers to as “monsters.” These monsters threaten to bring chaos, which the speaker echoes in the form of metrical irregularity. However, the speaker insists on the possibility of resisting these monsters and effectively “constrain[ing]” them. Such a constraint is reflected in the meter’s immediate return to strict iambic rhythm, suggesting that those in the resistance are truly in control—even if they might die.