Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


The speaker makes several derogatory references to animals throughout the poem, always to assert his own humanity and that of his compatriots. The first derogatory references appear in the opening quatrain (lines 1–4):

     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.

These lines contain two references to animals. In the first case, the speaker aligns himself and his kinsmen with “hogs,” and in the second, he aligns his oppressor with “dogs.” The speaker refuses to be corralled into a pen and slaughtered like a helpless pig. Dying in such a way would be profoundly dehumanizing, especially if surrounded by cruel men who, like vicious hounds, bark mockingly at their captives. In the second quatrain, the speaker again likens their oppressors to nonhuman animals, this time referring to them as “monsters” (line 7). This reference quite plainly casts the oppressors as less than human, which implicitly distinguishes the speaker and his compatriots as human beings. The speaker affirms this distinction again in the first line of the closing couplet: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack” (line 13). Whereas the oppressors are little more than a “murderous, cowardly pack” of animals, the speaker and his compatriots are firmly identified as fully human “men.”

Death and Honor

Death and honor appear as paired motifs throughout the sonnet. In the opening quatrain, the speaker links death and honor in a way that reflects a negative or inverse relationship between them. He declares (lines 1–2):

     If we must die, let it not be like hogs
     Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.

Here, the speaker presents a particularly dishonorable form of death. Being penned up like hogs in an “inglorious spot” would strip the condemned of their agency, and death in such a situation would rob them of their dignity. By contrast, gathering the energy to resist oppression and put up a fight can preserve dignity, even in the face of imminent death. The speaker suggests as much at the start of the second quatrain: “If we must die, O let us nobly die” (line 5). A noble death is possible, but only if they “meet [their] common foe” (line 9) in a direct contest of arms. It is precisely this vision of a dignified death that the speaker offers in his concluding couplet (lines 13–14):

     Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
     Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Death may be inevitable, but the speaker and his compatriots still have the agency to assert their honor.