sonnets, Modernism, Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, protest


The sonnet tradition is rich with change. It is a genre forged in strict conventions: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, a volta (or even multiple turns), and themes of praise and unrequited love. Because of these rules, sonneteers from Petrarch to Shakespeare, Donne to Rosetti, and Hopkins to Hughes have used this form and bent it to their own personal uses. The sonnet has an intense social, cultural, and political history. This paper analyzes how Claude Mckay both used the conventions of the sonnet tradition and broke from the sonnet tradition in the poems “If We Must Die” and “The Lynching” to protest racial injustice in America. As a Jamaican writer with a British education living in America at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay’s use of this form raises several questions. Why is McKay using an 800-year-old form, especially when modernist poets had been pushing away from traditional forms? Why did these poems centered on protest need to be sonnets? How do these poems advance protest? Many have criticized McKay’s use of the sonnet form because of its connection to a white, colonialist culture. However, other scholars have recently pointed to his use of the sonnet as radical, especially when compared to other sonnets written by Black poets before him. I argue that McKay takes complete ownership of the sonnet form and uses it to provoke a radical change of thought in his poems “If We Must Die” and “The Lynching”

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