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Claude McKay's "America"
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.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
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.
Interpretive Reading of McKay's "America"
Claude McKay came to the United States of America in 1912 from Jamaica. The speaker in McKay's sonnet, "America," dramatizes his ambivalent feelings for his adopted nation.
McKay's sonnet is of the Shakespearean (Elizabethan or English) style displayed in the traditional three quatrain-couplet form. The poem moves with the traditional riming scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG, also traditional with the Shakespearean sonnet style.
(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
While Claude Mckay's talent as a gifted poet is undeniable, this sonnet unfortunately is seriously flawed on a number of levels.
First Quatrain: "Although she feeds me bread of bitterness"
In the speaker's eagerness to colorfully portray his ambivalent emotions of love and hate for his new nation, he erroneously creates an unworkable mixed metaphor in the first two lines: "Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, / And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth."
The speaker has designed a creature that offers him bad food—"bread of bitterness"—and then transforms into a tiger gripping him by the throat, while ripping his life out of him.
This bitter bread/tiger metaphor fails miserably for two reasons: first, no sensible reader can accept as believable a large cat feeding "bread"—bitter or otherwise—to a soon-to-be recipient of its deadly force.
And second, moving beyond the incongruity of a bread-feeding-tiger, any reader will comprehend that after the tiger has slit the victim's throat, the poor unfortunate would then be dead, thus, not able to utter further a single word, including the risible line, "I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!"
That line itself offers two issues that confound the speaker's message: first, it may appear to be a glowing affirmation for the speaker to say he "loves" this nation and is, in fact, made strong as it "tests [the speaker's] youth." Second, however, referring to a place as "cultured hell" countermands his stated claim.
Second Quatrain: "Her vigor flows like tides into my blood"
The speaker then appears to list reasons that lead him to tender feelings for the country. America is big and vigorous. However while her vitality may seem to revitalize him, that same quality in fact only encourages him to rise up "against her hate."
The line, "Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state," is split off from its complement which appears in the third quatrain. This split becomes a flaw of technique because it fails to be supported by contextual engagement.
Third Quatrain: "I stand within her walls with not a shred"
The contradictory features in the third quatrain become nearly laughable: the speaker positions himself as a rebel standing before a "king" within "walls." The country this speaker had adopted has never had a king, even less one who is walled off from the rest of America.
As the speaker stands up against a walled king, he experiences no feelings of "terror, malice." Furthermore, it does not occur to him to "jeer" at the "cultured hell" that he supposedly loves.
Problematically, the sonnet exudes terror and malice as it jeers out its mixed, convoluted message of ambivalence. The speaker seems to be trying to spew out his venom while keeping it cloaked and hidden.
Couplet: "Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand"
In the couplet, the speaker makes a dire prediction that also displays an absurd image as well as a geological anomaly: America's greatness along with its "priceless treasures" will eventually be "sinking in the sand."
The choice of "sand" for the American nation to sink into is inappropriate because that type of soil is not the primary soil type found on the continent where the USA resides.
All of the unfortunate choices of mixing metaphors, abducting and revising history, and confounding geology render this poem a resounding piece of cacophony—even as it sounds pleasant enough in its execution.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes