America Claude Mckay

In 'America' (1921), Claude McKay expresses the dichotomous experience of living in America as a black immigrant. 'America' is personified throughout the poem as a brutal yet wondrous place, contributing to the narrator's conflicting perception of the country.

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Table of contents

    America 1921 by Claude McKay: Summary

    Let's take a look at the poem at a glance:


    Written in


    Written by

    Claude McKay




    Iambic pentameter

    Rhyme scheme


    Poetic devices





    Frequently noted imagery





    Key themes



    America is a unique and flourishing nation, yet it is also ridden with social issues such as racism.

    America: A Poem by Claude Mckay

    Claude McKay was a Jamaican poet who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, in 1889, McKay was raised by parents of Ashanti and Malagasy descent.

    Harlem Renaissance: a literary and art movement which emerged in the late 1910s and continued up until the late 1930s that was a celebration of African American culture and heritage, seeking to reconceptualise the identity of African Americans.

    McKay published his first book of poetry, titled Songs of Jamaica, in 2012. It was written in the Jamaican dialect. That same year, he attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, USA, and later Kansas State University, where he studied for two years. After completing his studies, McKay continued to write and publish poetry that expressed various social and political experiences from his perspective as a black man.

    America Claude Mckay, portrait of Claude McKay, StudySmarterClaude McKay is one of the main names from the Harlem Renaissance.

    America by Claude McKay: Analysis

    Now that we've covered Claude McKay's background, it's time to analyse his 1921 poem, 'America'. We will consider both structural and linguistic features of the poem, from McKay's choice of meter to the poem's major themes.

    Full poem

    Read the full poem:

    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.


    The poem's title, 'America', directly refers to the nation of America, highlighting it as the poem's focus. The noun 'America' is not complemented by an adjective, causing the poem's title to come across as neutral. This allows the reader to be informed of the narrator's conflicted perception of America through the contents of the poem itself.

    Form and structure

    The poem 'America' is written in a sonnet form. This form and structure give the poem a regular structure, creating a considerate and thoughtful tone.

    'America' is a Shakespearean sonnet, which is a sonnet form consisting of fourteen lines, usually in a single stanza, and written in iambic pentameter. The fourteen lines of a Shakespearean sonnet are typically divided into three quatrains (four lines) and a couplet, following an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme.

    In the eighth line of the poem, there is a turning point, also known as a volta, causing the poem to change direction. In the first eight lines of the poem, the narrator focuses on America, which is personified as 'she'. In the final six lines of the poem, the narrator focuses on their presence in America; 'I stand within her walls'. This partially divides the poem into an octave and a sestet, although not in the traditional way we see in Petrarchan sonnets.

    Petrarchan sonnet: A type of sonnet consisting of fourteen lines divided into an octave (eight lines) with an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme and a sestet (six lines) with either a CDCDCD or CDECDE rhyme scheme.

    Iambic pentameter: A line of verse consisting of five iambs (one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable).

    The sonnet form is associated with love and romance. Why do you think McKay has chosen this form for his poem? Does the poem's content contradict or conform to this form?

    America by Claude McKay: Literary Devices

    McKay employs various poetic devices, such as enjambment and alliteration, to influence the rhythm and tone in which the poem is read. In addition to these structural features of the poem that contribute to how we, the reader, interpret the poem, McKay uses literary devices such as personification and oxymoron to portray America and his perception of the nation.


    Enjambment is used only twice within the poem, causing it to have a notable effect on the poem's rhythm. As the poem is written in iambic pentameter, McKay's use of enjambment creates unnatural pauses, for instance:

    I stand within her walls with not a shred

    Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

    Here, the enjambment causes the narrator to pause as they describe how they exist within America without 'terror' or 'malice'. The pause emphasises that the narrator does not resent or fear America despite its cruelty. A tone of consideration is created from this pause, as though the narrator is trying to be honest and open and is, therefore, taking their time with what they say.

    Enjambment: when a sentence is continued from one line of verse onto another.


    McKay utilises alliteration to add a harsh note to the poem's pensive tone, suggesting a level of resentment expressed by the narrator. For instance, in the first stanza, McKay writes:

    she feeds me bread of bitterness,

    Here, the plosive 'b' sound creates a harsh and blunt sound, contributing to the resentment suggested by 'bitterness'.

    Plosive: a consonant sound created by suddenly releasing air after stopping the airflow, these sounds include; 't', 'k', 'p', 'g', 'd', and 'b'.


    Throughout the poem, America is personified. By giving the nation human attributes, McKay highlights how the majority of the issues he associates with the nation are related to the people who govern and live within it, rather than the nation as merely a mass of land. For instance, in the second and third stanzas, McKay writes:

    And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

    By referring to America as 'her', the speaker personifies the nation.


    McKay utilises an oxymoron in the poem to demonstrate the narrator's conflicting stance on America. The most prominent use of an oxymoron is in the poem's fourth stanza, where McKay writes:

    I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

    The contrast between the positive connotations of 'cultured' and negative connotations of 'hell' in the description of America indicates that, even though McKay views America as an overall negative place, he acknowledges that it has some benefits. This idea is carried through to McKay's use of another oxymoron in the poem's final line:

    Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

    America by Claude McKay: Imagery and Tone

    The poetic and literary devices we have reviewed contribute to the overall imagery and tone of 'America'.


    There are two dominant semantic fields within the poem that conflict with each other, cruelty and grandeur. These two juxtaposing semantic fields emphasise the vast and simultaneously cruel and grand nature of America.

    Semantic field: A lexical field of related terms

    Juxtaposition: Two things which contrast each other


    McKay utilises a semantic field of cruelty throughout 'America' to present the country in a dark and dangerous way. This is evident through McKay's linguistic choices; 'bitterness', 'hell', 'terror', 'malice', and 'sinking'. Such language evokes negative imagery of a harsh and unfair landscape, indicating to the reader that America is not necessarily a kind or welcoming place. This is particularly evident in the second line, where America is metaphorically portrayed as a tiger;

    And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,


    The poem's semantic field of cruelty is juxtaposed by a semantic field of grandeur, suggesting that the narrator has conflicting views of America. Once again, McKay uses language to evoke a certain image in the reader's mind, this time a positive one, with the words ' vigor', 'strength', 'bigness', 'granite wonders', 'priceless treasures'. Here, America comes across as a land that is larger than life, which the narrator admires.


    The poem has a pensive tone, as the narrator considers the nation of America for both its positive and negative aspects and tries to work out what sort of future the nation may hold.

    This tone is mainly created through the poem's structure. It is written in iambic pentameter with a regular rhyme scheme, creating a controlled rhythm. This controlled rhythm suggests that the narrator has carefully considered what they are saying rather than speaking without thought.

    The tone is also developed through the poem's juxtaposing semantic fields of cruelty and grandeur. These two opposing images contribute to the idea that the narrator is considering what their opinion is on America, weighing up the good and bad.

    America by Claude McKay: Themes

    As hinted at by the poem's title, 'America' presents the nation of America and McKay's perception of it to the reader. The most significant theme within the poem is conflict. However, this theme relies on the underlying theme of history.


    The central theme of 'America' is conflict, both in regard to the conflicted nature of America as a nation and the narrator's conflicting perceptions of the nation. This theme is encapsulated by lines three and four of the poem:

    Stealing my breath of life, I will confessI love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

    Although McKay acknowledges that America is 'hell', he also states that he loves the nation. This suggests that, despite being critical of America's flaws, McKay can not help how he feels, leaving him conflicted. This conflict is emphasised by the enjambment between the lines, creating a slight break in the rhythm as McKay confesses how he feels about America. This break could demonstrate how McKay is conflicted about his feelings as he struggles to say them outright.


    History is an underlying theme throughout the poem. In 'America', McKay documents the political and social tensions of a moment in time in America, making the poem itself a piece of history. This theme is most evident in the final two lines of the poem:

    Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,

    Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

    This couplet is arguably an allusion to Percy Shelley's sonnet 'Ozymandias' (1818), which presents the decline of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, known as Ozymandias by the Greeks. Shelley's poem concludes with the lines:

    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Allusion: A reference in a literary text to a location, event, or other literary work.

    Through alluding to Shelley's poem, which references the historic fall and decay of a ruler, McKay is suggesting that America, which is 'beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand', may meet the same fate. The personification of time emphasises the historical nature of this suggestion and suggests that America can not control the hand of time as it is inevitable and 'unerring'.

    The imagery of 'priceless treasures sinking' also indicates that if America remains marked by the social and political issues of racism and xenophobia which influenced McKay's writing, then it will meet the fate of many other unequal societies present throughout history.

    America - Key Takeaways

    • 'America' (1921) is a poem by Claude McKay that expresses the dichotomous experience of living in America as a black immigrant.
    • America is personified throughout the poem to highlight how it is the people rather than the land itself impacting the narrator.
    • The poem is written in a sonnet form, consisting of fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and an ABABABABABABCC rhyme scheme.
    • Contrasting imagery of cruelty and grandeur is utilised throughout the poem, contributing to the theme of conflict.
    Frequently Asked Questions about America Claude Mckay

    What is the meaning of the poem 'America' by Claude McKay?

    'America' (1921) expresses the dichotomous experience of living in America. Although it is a nation of 'might and granite wonders', it also steals the narrator's 'breath of life'.

    Why do you think McKay refers to America as she in his poem, do you think there is symbolism behind this choice?

    By referring to America as 'she', McKay personifies the nation, adding a human element to the poem. McKay could also be symbolically referring to The Statue of Liberty.

    Who is the speaker in the poem 'America' by Claude McKay?

    Although the narrator of 'America' is not directly named, it may be Claude McKay himself, who experienced America as a black immigrant first hand.

    When was Claude McKay's 'America' written?

    'America' was first published in 1921.

    What is the figurative language in the poem 'America'? 

    Figurative language is non-literal language used to convey a specific meaning. Figurative language, such as personification and metaphors, is used throughout 'America' to convey the nation's nature.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who wrote 'America' (1921)?

    Which rhyme scheme is used in 'America'?

    Which Supreme Court ruling in America led to the desegregation of schools?


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