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Claude McKay's "I Shall Return"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Claude McKay


I Shall Return

I shall return again; I shall return
To laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes
At golden noon the forest fires burn,
Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies.
I shall return to loiter by the streams
That bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses,
And realize once more my thousand dreams
Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim remembered runes.
I shall return, I shall return again,
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.

Reading of 5 McKay Poems: #3 "I Shall Return" 4:25


Claude McKay's speaker in his English sonnet, "I Shall Return," employs clusters of images that offer solace to a soul long steeped in sorrow.

The form of Claude McKay's "I Shall Return" is an English sonnet, (also known Shakespearean or Elizabethan). The sonnet fits the English sonnet mold with three quatrains and couplet in the rime scheme, ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

(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.")

Each line contains ten syllables and most lines move in a rhythmic iambic pentameter. Thematically, the speaker dramatizes his intention, perhaps promise, to return to his native village. He muses about certain images that have remained fixed in his mind's eye.

First Quatrain: "I shall return again; I shall return"

The speaker begins by insisting, "I shall return again; I shall return." His insistence hints that, in fact, he probably will not return, but in his poem is free to return often; thus, the repetition of "I shall return" and the redundancy of "I shall return again."

Upon his return, the speaker will enjoy once more the occasion "[t]o laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes." He will watch in this state of wonder at noon "the forest fires" that "burn / Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies."

While such a strange event prompting nostalgia may seem a bit odd, the collection of images offers a bold array of experience. Readers/listeners of the poem can see the flaming fire as it sends up its "blue-black smoke." They can hear the fizz and hiss as the fire flames.

They can smell the smoke as it lifts to the "sapphire skies," a further image that the reader/listener can also see with the inner eye. That image cluster is so potent that the reader/listener is mesmerized into disregarding the possible damage brought on by the fire.

Second Quatrain: "I shall return to loiter by the streams"

The speaker next repeats his refrain, claiming, "I shall return." And this time, he is returning "to loiter by the streams." Interestingly, these streams "bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses," implying that the water is replenishing the foliage that was damaged by the "forest fire."

As the speaker "loiter[s] by the streams," he remembers that in his dreams so many times, he has experienced "waters rushing down the mountain passes." Again, the speaker unveils a cluster of images that capture the reader's imagination: the reader sees the water and hears it and possibly even smells it as it rushes over the burned blades of grass.

Third Quatrain: "I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife"

The speaker employs his refrain once again, "I shall return," and now he takes his listener to the heart of his village where they will "hear the fiddle and fife," and watch as the "village dances." The melodies are "dear delicious tunes" that delight the speaker's heart, and the reader finds solace in them as well. The speaker avers that this music "stir[s] the hidden depths of native life." For him, the music carries soul qualities that infuse his inner being with joy that emanates from "stray melodies of dim remembered runes."

Couplet: "I shall return, I shall return again"

Finally, the speaker invokes for the last time his refrain and the redundant, "I shall return again," to put a final emphasis on his intention of returning to these images for solace, for he asserts his reason for this return, "[t]o ease my mind of long, long years of pain." A return to his native village to experience the sights, sounds, and smells offers a balm to his soul, whether he returns in fancy or reality.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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