Claude McKay and the Sonnet Form
When Claude McKay was writing his poetry, free verse was very much in fashion, and many of his peers in the emerging modernist movement were writing their poems in this form (among McKay's contemporaries were poets like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and H.D.). However, McKay quite deliberately opted for traditional form—rhyme and meter—in his poetry from this period, rejecting modernist aesthetics even as his poetry from the 1910s and 20s embraced what we might see as modern themes. His preference for traditional forms also separates McKay from many of his peers in the Harlem Renaissance who, like the modernists, often used free verse and turned to rhyme sporadically.
But why would McKay choose to write almost exclusively in a form that would set him apart from others who were writing about similar themes, of class, race, the changing values of modern urban existence, and changing values regarding sexuality?
It could be a result of his education. As a child, McKay spent some time living with his oldest brother who was a teacher, and this could have exposed him to some classical writers who influenced his poetry (McKay began writing at age 10). While in Jamaica, McKay was mentored by an Englishman named Walter Jekyll, who encouraged him to write poems about everyday life in Jamaica, using language characteristic of Jamaican peasants like the ones he grew up around -- even if it might not be readily accessible to outsiders. This led McKay to produce two books of vernacular poetry in Jamaican patois (Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica). The poems in these collections generally use traditional forms even as they engage in radical linguistic innovations.
In his essay, “Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows," Terence Hoagwood explains that McKay liked the traditional sonnet form because he felt it was the best way to express his feelings. Instead of seeing the guidelines of the sonnet form as something that would restrict him, McKay saw them as a way to “set his poetry free.” We know words can be much more powerful and memorable when rhymed, and the best way for McKay to emphasize the strong feelings he had about his life experiences was to place those poems in a form where the emphasis could be directed. The musicality of the sonnet form made his poems absolutely sing with meaning.
It’s important that we pay attention to form as well as meaning when we read McKay’s poetry because the two are very closely related. When McKay chose to write his poetry, he chose the form of his poems just like he chose the words and the subject. Every choice he made has meaning and looking at those choices are what lets us understand who he was and why he wrote as well as what he was writing about.
Certain literary terms are essential to understanding how McKay and other poets use the poetic tradition to express themselves. Below are a few key terms used on this page for readers who may not have encountered them before.
couplet – A pair of successive lines of verse, esp. when rhyming together and of the same length.
octave – A group or stanza of eight lines of verse, (now) esp. the octet of a sonnet.
sestet – The last six lines of a sonnet.
sonnet – A piece of verse (properly expressive of one main idea) consisting of fourteen decasyllabic lines, with rhymes arranged according to one or other of certain definite schemes.
quatrain – A stanza of four lines, esp. one having alternate rhymes; four lines of verse.
The English (Shakespearean) Sonnet
This sonnet form is perhaps the most widely recognized. It consists of three alternating quatrains and ends with a couplet. Usually the sonnet tells of the poet’s love for a woman with the third quatrain introducing a “volta” or a turn where the theme and imagery of the poem change. The ending couplet usually summarizes the poem or gives a reflection on the subject. Although introduced by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century, English sonnets have retained their popularity and were used well into the 20th century by poets such as Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats.
The rhyme scheme for English Sonnets is as follows:
a b a b
c d c d
e f e f
Below is an example of one of McKay’s poems which has been written in the English Sonnet form. See if you can spot the volta.
Altea mentions in her tender letters,
Among a chain of quaint and touching things,
That you are feeble, weighted down with fetters,
And given to strange deeds and mutterings.
No longer without trace or thought of fear,
Do you leap to and ride the rebel roan;
But have become the victim of grim care,
With three brown beauties to support alone.
But none the less will you be in my mind,
Wild May that cantered by the risky ways,
With showy head-cloth flirting in the wind,
From market in the glad December days;
Wild May of whom even other girls could rave
Before sex tamed your spirit, made you slave.
Some other poems by McKay that exhibit the English Sonnet form:
America, Africa, Dawn in New York, Enslaved, Futility, If We Must Die, In Bondage, I Shall Return, La Paloma in London, On a Primitive Canoe, On the Road, Outcast, The Castaways, The Harlem Dancer, The Night Fire, The Tired Worker, Thirst
These poems exhibit a double English Sonnet, where he repeats the form to make two separate stanzas. Compare them to his single sonnets to see how this affects their pacing and volta: My Mother, The Snow Fairy
The Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet
This sonnet form is made up of an octave and sestet. However, unlike other sonnet forms, the rhyme scheme of the sestet is fairly flexible and can rhyme many different ways, for example c d e c e d instead of McKay’s usual c d c d c d. Just like English Sonnets, Italian Sonnets contain a volta, and it usually occurs where the rhyme scheme changes (between the octave and sestet). The rhyme scheme is as follows:
a b b a a b b a
c d c d c d
I Know My Soul
I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
Some other poems by McKay in the Italian Sonnet form:
Baptism, Birds of Prey, To Winter
These poems exhibit a double Italian Sonnet, where he repeats the form to make two separate stanzas. Compare them to his single sonnets to see how this affects their pacing and volta: One Year After, Through Agony
Some of McKay’s poems still take the sonnet form but do not explicitly follow a sonnet tradition. He has adapted to rhyme scheme and changed the pacing of his poems in order to better emphasize the stories they tell. This is perhaps one of the best ways for us to see how McKay’s mind works when it’s not completely bound to the rules of the sonnet form he’s chosen. Take notice of the changes he makes. Why would he decide to make those changes?
Below is an example of a variation on the sonnet form. Compare it to the English and Italian sonnets and see how alike it is, but also how different. Notice where McKay decided to deviate from the traditional form.
Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee.
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up—
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth—
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
Some other poems by McKay in which he varies the sonnet form:
Some other poems by McKay in which he varies the sonnet form:
Poetry, The Lynching
“Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows” by Terance Hoagwood. The Explicator 68:1, 51-54, 2010.
Information about sonnet forms from sonnets.org