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Throughout the poem, the speaker employs simile and metaphor to help sharpen the contrast between himself and his oppressors. Recall that a simile (SIH-muh-lee) is a figure of speech that explicitly compares two unlike things to each other. A metaphor (MEH-tuh-for), by contrast, makes a more implicit comparison between two unlike things. The opening quatrain (lines 1–4) offers a useful example of how the speaker establishes a tense relationship between simile and metaphor:
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.
A simile occurs in the opening line, where the speaker explicitly compares the situation he and kinsmen find themselves in to the hunting and penning of pigs. In this simile, the speaker and his compatriots are “like hogs.” Crucially, however, the speaker makes this comparison negatively. That is, he dismisses the comparison even as he makes it, thereby refusing to be treated like an animal. By contrast, the speaker uses a metaphor to identify his oppressors as “mad and hungry dogs.” Whereas the speaker and his kinsmen are not like hogs, their oppressors are like dogs. And furthermore, since the speaker uses metaphor rather than simile, the oppressors aren’t like dogs—they are dogs. This distinction is crucial, since it reverses the hierarchy that otherwise treats the speaker and his compatriots as less than human.
Apostrophe (uh-PAW-struh-FEE) is a rhetorical figure in which a speaker makes a direct and explicit address, usually to an absent person or to an object or abstract entity. In McKay’s poem, the speaker uses apostrophe to address to his compatriots:
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!
These lines (lines 9–11) consist of a rousing call to arms, as the speaker attempts to convince his compatriots to demonstrate their bravery by joining the fight against their “common foe.” Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear whether the addressees are present or absent. On the one hand, it’s possible that the speaker is addressing a small group of fellows who are under imminent threat of violence. On the other hand, it’s possible to read the speaker’s address more generally. That is, instead of depicting a particular moment of impending violence, he may be speaking more generally, addressing any “kinsmen” who belong to an oppressed or marginalized group. Both readings are available, which has the advantage of making the poem meaningful to a wider range of readers.
In literary analysis, consonance refers the repetition of consonant sounds in sequential or nearby words or phrases. Throughout “If We Must Die,” McKay makes frequent and highly varied use of consonance to give his verse a sonorous musicality and subtle power. To see just how varied McKay’s use of consonance is, consider the sonnet’s opening quatrain (lines 1–4):
In this passage, McKay maintains several threads of consonance, three of which are marked with alterations to the type. Note the M sounds marked in bold text, the N sounds marked in unitalicized text, and the D sounds marked in bold-and-unitalicized text. What’s remarkable about these overlapping threads is the way McKay sustains them with differing degrees of density. For example, the M and D sounds each appear sporadically in three different lines. By contrast, the N sounds appear more densely in the second line, with two additional instances in the third line. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the placement of these repeating consonant sounds varies in terms of their position within individual words. In the case of the D sounds, for instance, they appear at both the beginning and ending of words, which produces additional variation in sound and intonation.