“If We Must Die” derives its structure from its form as an English sonnet. An English sonnet, also known as a Shakespearean sonnet, is traditionally organized into three quatrains and a closing couplet. Each of the quatrains forms a distinct unit, and in many cases they consist of a single sentence and express a unified idea. Although quatrains will sometimes be organized in a way that develops a central idea in progressive stages, in many sonnets the quatrains simply provide variations on the same theme. Regardless of how the quatrains are organized, the final couplet tends to conclude with a concise, epigrammatic statement that wraps up the speaker’s main idea in a pithy way. The transition from the third quatrain into the closing couplet often involves what’s known as a volta, or “turn,” where the speaker figuratively steps back and comments on what has come before. Whereas in some cases the speaker may reiterate the main idea they’ve developed in the previous quatrains, sometimes they may refute or contradict what’s come before.
In the case of “If We Must Day,” the poem unfolds a logic that is, overall, progressive and argumentative. The main argument plays out across the three quatrains. The first two quatrains set the foundation of the speaker’s argument. In the first quatrain, the speaker insists on not wanting to die like a penned-up animal. The speaker follows this statement by claiming, in the second quatrain, that if he and his compatriots are going to die anyway, then they should at least die nobly. With these foundational principles in place, the speaker moves into the third quatrain, where he calls out to their compatriots to join the fight. The speaker brings his argument to its logical conclusion by implying that the only way he and his companions can keep their spirit of freedom intact is to face death head on. Moving into the couplet, the speaker clinches his argument by offering a vision in which he and his compatriots die heroically, “like men” (line 13) rather than “like hogs” (line 1).