In "When Dawn Comes to the City," Claude McKay describes a city scene in which people wake up to a dull, gray environment and go to work. This is contrasted with the imagery of the "island of the sea" that the speaker would prefer to occupy.
As the poem begins, the speaker describes the city waking up:
The tired cars go grumbling by,
The moaning, groaning cars,
And the old milk carts go rumbling by
Under the same dull stars.
Out of the tenements, cold as stone,
Dark figures start for work;
I watch them sadly shuffle on,
‘Tis dawn, dawn in New York.
The verbs—"grumbling," "moaning," "groaning," and "rumbling"—suggest pain and complaint. There is no sense that the occupants of these vehicles are excited about the start of another day. The phrase "the same dull stars" suggests the monotony of work life in the city. Their homes are described as "cold as stone," so even that environment is unwelcoming. The "dark figures" go to work; they "sadly shuffle on." Clearly, no one is enthused about going to a boring, predictable job.
On the other hand, leisure is represented by the island the speaker describes in the second stanza. The speaker uses imagery and vivid diction to represent life on the island:
Where the cocks are crowing, crowing, crowing,
And the hens are cackling in the rose-apple tree,
Where the old draft-horse is neighing, neighing, neighing
Out on the brown dew-silvered lawn,
And the tethered cow is lowing, lowing, lowing,
And dear old Ned is braying, braying, braying,
And the shaggy Nannie goat is calling, calling, calling
From her little trampled corner of the long wide lea
That stretches to the waters of the hill-stream falling
Sheer upon the flat rocks joyously!
The animals are described using verbs that capture their typical behavior, but there is not the same sense of monotony that we see in the first stanza. The rural environment is romanticized and drawn in vivid detail. The end of this section has the speaker exclaiming about the "joy" of the water splashing "upon the flat rocks." The combination of the word "joyously" and the use of the exclamation point stand in stark contrast to the dull setting of the city.
The third stanza repeats with some variety the ideas of the first stanza. The speaker's observations of "the dying stars" and "the gray of the sky" stand out as the definitive traits of the environment in which people go to work in the city.
The final stanza returns to the subject of the second stanza and repeats it as a refrain. The back-and-forth structure juxtaposes the dry, monotonous world of work with the vivid, colorful environs of the leisurely pastoral island.