America by Claude Mckay is a poem written in the form of a sonnet with fourteen lines, split into three quatrains. Sonnets usually represent love and through this poem, the poet expresses his love for America however, he’s also criticizing all its “bitterness”. The poet says that although America is full of violence and brutality it still stands strong with its mighty power. The poem follows an ABABABABABABCC rhyme scheme and represents the theme of patriotism and bitterness.
America | Summary and Analysis
The poet criticizes America but at the same time expresses his love for his nation. He lists all the flaws of the country yet says that it inspires strength within him. The poem creates a balance between America’s defects and its power. At the end of the poem, the poet suggests that the power that is the pride of the country might eventually fall and all its “treasures” will be in ruins. The poet recognizes America’s good qualities which inspire strength but there are also some things that stand opposite to them.
America, Poem Lines 1-4
“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.”
America forces bitterness upon the poet. “Bitterness” refers to violence, corruption and other horrors that exist in America. It is an oppressive place that attacks him like a beast. It steals his life and vitality. Nonetheless, the poet still loves this hellish place that challenges his youth. For the poet, America is an overbearing and unpleasant nation that “steals his breath”. America is personified as a woman and the femininity of the country stands in contrast with the poet. By using enjambment with “I love” the poet emphasizes his love for America. “Cultured Hell” refers to the simultaneous horror and brilliance that America possesses.
America | Poem Analysis, Lines 5-8
“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,”
The poet feels the country’s immense strength flowing through his veins. This fills him with the power to resist the hatred that he faces. The country’s vast size is like a flood that sweeps him with energy. But he feels like a rebel standing against a king. Here the poet talks about some good characteristics of America, the country provides “vigor” and “strength” to its citizens. America is described as a force of nature, “flows like tides’, and “like a flood”. Again the poet shows the contradictory nature of America, the strength it provides helps the poet fight against “her hate”. While this place is awful it still provides great power to its citizens.
America | Poem Analysis, Lines 9-12
“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,”
He stands within its borders without a single scrap of fear, hatred, or mockery. The poet now talks about his own perspective. He says that he can criticize this nation while still living there. He is far removed from all the negativity that America represents. He looks ahead towards the country’s grim future. He describes America’s magnificence as “might and granite wonders”, which represents the power of the country.
America | Poem Analysis, Lines 13-14
“Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand”.
The poet sees America’s monumental power and prosperity fading from memory in time and its riches sinking into the sand. He believes that all that power will crumble with time. The power of nature will surpass the power of America as its “priceless treasures” sink in the sand. The poet suggests that America’s reign will not last forever, someday it will diminish.
This final imagery is similar to Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” where he reflects the power of time over tyrant power. The poet here wants to illustrate that America’s tyrannical power will also fall with time; its might will not last forever. This reflects the poet’s opinion that the hatred and injustice he faces will eventually vanish.
America by Claude Mckay | Themes
Patriotism and Bitterness – Claude Mckay immigrated to the United States and thus considered it as his adopted country. In this poem, he talks about his love for America despite the hate he shows towards people like him. The poem reflects the poet’s struggles as a black individual. He also says that despite all the hate the country still provides him with the strength to fight back against the same hate. He describes America as “hell” and accuses it of forcing bitterness on him. He faces immense emotional conflict but the country forces him to remain silent and endure all the hardships. It’s torture living in that country. However, the pain he experiences revitalizes his love for this country. Paradoxically the power that America uses to oppress people also provides them with strength, thus the poet still has respect for America. He feels like a rebel, fighting back without “terror”. The poem overall depicts the complexity of America.
Nation vs. Individual – There’s an ongoing conflict between an oppressive country and the individuals it oppresses. The country torments the poet and challenges his “youth” but the poet believes that ultimately this power will crumble in time. The poet wants to express that individuals can tolerate the oppression and survive against the country’s brutality. The poet emphasizes that he has no power over the country as it “sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth” but as a citizen, he still has the power to speak the truth. He faces injustice as a fearless rebel. The poet expresses his perspective by predicting the downfall of the country’s might. The country can’t win against the power of time. As an individual, he has imaginative power. The country’s malice and terror are trivial and he stands above them. He does not possess the same hatred as the country.
America by Claude Mckay | Poetic devices
The poem includes poetic devices like oxymoron, alliteration, personification and metaphor. When the poet describes America as “cultured hell” he’s using an oxymoron. This reflects the contradictory nature of America while it’s ideal it’s also an awful place. The poet personifies America as a woman when he says “she feeds me bread of bitterness” and uses pronouns like “her vigor” and “her hate”. America is given a feminine image. The poet also uses an animal metaphor by saying “sinking into my throat her tiger tooth”, this represents the wild and unpredictable nature of America. Alliteration is used in many places including “tiger’s tooth”, “bread of bitterness”, “bigness and being”, “touch of time” and “sinking in the sand”. The harshness of the words represents the poet’s simultaneous love and hatred for America.
America by Claude Mckay | About the poet
Claude Mckay (1890-1948) was a Jamaican-American author and poet. He mostly wrote about black people living in Jamaica and America and all the struggles that the racist society forced on them. He was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. His well-known works include “If We Must Die” and “Home to Harlem”, which also won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature.