Claude McKay

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What is the analysis of "America" by Claude McKay?

What is an analysis of "America" by Claude McKay? 

Claude McKay's "America" is an English sonnet in which the speaker personifies the country, attributing to it a feminine identity. The speaker expresses both his love and bitterness for the country, which is powerful but filled with racism, and foresees its eventual destruction.

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Claude MacKay’s “America” is an English or Shakespearean sonnet in perfectly regular iambic pentameter. It has a turn (a change of ideas or perspectives) at the end of the octave but another more substantial turn in the final couplet. All these classical elements, together with the elevated diction and...

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Claude MacKay’s “America” is an English or Shakespearean sonnet in perfectly regular iambic pentameter. It has a turn (a change of ideas or perspectives) at the end of the octave but another more substantial turn in the final couplet. All these classical elements, together with the elevated diction and constant use of figurative language, contribute to the sense of high seriousness and literary virtuosity which distinguish the poem.

The first quatrain contains two contrasting images. The “bread of bitterness” is at least some sustenance, but as soon as America (personified as a woman) has fed him, she tears at his throat. Nonetheless, he loves her, even while describing her as a “cultured hell.” This juxtaposition of contrasts recurs throughout the sonnet.

The second quatrain opens with a similar paradox. The vigor of America flows into the poet’s blood, strengthening him to oppose her own hate so that she fights both for and against him. Her vigor is compared with the tides of the sea in a powerful simile and, in another, he is like a rebel and she a king (rather than a queen, adding to the multiplicity of images). Within a line, however, she is the castle rather than the king, since he stands within her walls, rather surprisingly without any feelings of terror or malice against her.

What he does feel, it seems, is regret or sorrow as he foresees the destruction of the power of America, symbolized by “granite wonders” (many of New York’s skyscrapers are faced with granite and Manhattan Island is mainly composed of it, which allows the island to support such immense structures). One might think that after America’s rough treatment of him, he would feel some satisfaction at her eventual destruction, but the tone at the end is elegiac, as befits an impassioned requiem for a great country.

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The poem follows the format of an English sonnet. It consists of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet -- 14 lines in total. Furthermore, it has the same rhyme scheme: abab; cdcd; efef; gg. In addition, iambic pentameter is used, which gives it rhythm.

The poet personifies the country and gives it a feminine identity, which is a common practice when referring to land. In the first stanza, the speaker uses contrast to express his sentiments about the country. He starts off using the conjunction "although," indicating that a juxtaposition is to follow. He states a negative aspect first but contrasts it with a positive declaration. This emphasizes the speaker's positive sentiment about the land he now calls home. 

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
The first line compares America to a mother who provides him bitter sustenance, implying that his life is probably a drudge. The second line suggests that she is a dangerous animal suffocating her prey, which means the speaker finds his life stifling and considers himself a victim. In spite of these factors, though, he declares that he loves this challenging country. He describes it as a "cultured hell," which is somewhat of an oxymoron, as one does not expect hell to be associated with culture. The implication is obvious: America might be civilized and enlightened, but it presents many difficulties to its residents.
 
The next three lines in the second stanza are positive affirmations of the power that this country provides. The speaker states that it energizes him, for it is itself driven by an inner revitalizing energy that sustains it. This inspires him and drives him forward. The speaker is overwhelmed by its size and its power. The simile strengthens the image of the country being like a life-giving river. It gives him the power to fight whatever malice he may experience within her borders.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood. 
The next line, which should actually be part of the second stanza, seems to stand alone -- a deliberate technique by the poet to indicate the speaker's rebellious inclination. He is not completely rebellious, but seems to assume a deliberate confrontational manner:
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state
It becomes clear, however, that he is not himself rebellious but that he is using the comparison to a rebel confronting a king to accentuate how safe he feels and that he bears America no ill will and would not mock her. It appears, though, as if the speaker is aware of the ravages of time and, when he looks into the country's future, he sees its immeasurable might and wonders gradually disappear into the metaphoric sands of time.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
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In "America," written as a sonnet in 1921, Claude McKay, a poet born in Jamaica, compares America in an extended metaphor to a woman who is energetic but cruel. She "feeds me bread of bitterness" and "sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth." These images are striking contrasts with the way America is often portrayed in poetry, as a noble Lady Liberty who stands for freedom and equality. 

McKay has mixed emotions about America. While she is cruel, there are parts of America he loves, such as her "vigor." In a simile, he compares America's energy to the forceful flow of tides. She gives him strength to combat her own hatred, and her size is compared, in another simile, to a flood. Then, McKay compares himself to a rebel who stands before a king, and he finds himself suddenly without hate or fear when he does so. In the last few lines, he gazes into America's future and sees her, in a metaphor, like statues sinking into the sand.

The America that McKay presents represents a duality. The country has both energy and power, as America did during the 1920s, but it also was filled with racism and hatred for African Americans. In the end, McKay predicts that America's promise will be unfulfilled, describing its statues sink into the sand and decay. 

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