Claude McKay

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Discuss the sonnet format of Claude McKay's "Outcast".

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Claude McKay was born in Jamaica and came to America to study.  Throughout McKay early years in America, he struggled to find a place for himself.  This is the subject of his English sonnet “Outcast.”

McKay wrote that he chose the format of the sonnet to write about his strong feelings because he felt that this style of poem was best suited to his emotions. The poet is the narrator of the poem which does follow the sonnet format. It has fourteen lines which are broken down into three quatrains and a rhyming couplet. Each of the quatrains has a specific purpose in leading toward the actual theme of the poem.

In the initial quatrain, the narrator speaks of his African heritage. Spiritually, he wonders what it would be like to go to the dark region of Africa.  His ancestors came from there in bondage.  He will never understand their words nor speak their language but he yearns to.  If he were able, he would sing the now forgotten jungle songs.

The second quatrain speaks to the desire to go back to Africa and the peace and serenity of the dark continent. But American and the western world holds him there. He feels that he held in captivity by the "western world" [fee:  a. law  (of land) in absolute ownership (Collins Dictionary)].

I would go back to darkness and to peace,

But the great western world holds me in fee,

And I may never hope for full release

While to its alien gods I bend my knee.

He may never find release from this alien world to which he is enslaved.  Unfortunately, he feels he will never be free and must always be subordinate to the white man. As long as he kowtows to the white man, he will never find his place or be free.

In the third quatrain, the poet states that he has lost a part of himself forever. He has lost something inside his inner being. He feels he given up his spiritual freedom that he wants so much. Because of his loss, he feels separated and without substance like a ghostly being as he walks among the men of the earth. He feels as though he is alone and outcast.

His birth was far away from the white world of America which is a threatening environment. He wishes to have been born in a different time. The racism McKay faced in his new country was more violent than that of his early years in Jamaica. His allegiance was to America because he became an American citizen.  However, his blackness and birth place also pulled at his heart strings. When he first came, McKay attended school in Alabama  and discovered racism for the first time. He later changed to Kansas State in hopes that he would be better received.  He was happier there,  but he also found some racism there as well. 

In 1916, McKay wrote to a publisher about his life and poetry.  He emphasized that he had could not believe the hatred that he often felt in regions of America.  His feelings were so indescribable that he had to put them down in poetry.  This is the origin of the sonnet “Outcast.”

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