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Carla Mara Durn Ugalde/ American Literature/ PhD Andrew McKeown/ March 27, 2017/1600

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Comment on Claude Mckays When Dawn Comes to the City

Literature as a form of art has the capacity of showing a point of view, throughout history
literature has been a space for social criticism. In the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance was
an artistic movement in which African Americans used a variety of art expressions to change
the way their community was perceived and to speak of the racism and segregation suffered
by them. Poetry was one of the art forms that bloomed during this period since the genre
allows showing ones most sensible and intimate thoughts. It is true that when reading a
poem one cannot expect to find a whole autobiography but certainly some of the background
and believes of the author can be traced throughout the literary piece. In the case of Claude
Mckay not only his political convictions were clearly impregnated in his works but also some
of his personal background and history.

Claude Mckay was born on September 15, 1889 in Jamaica, the village where he was born
was mostly composed by people with African heritage.His parents were farmers who tried
to give him the best education possible; Claude was sent to live with his older brother who
was a school teacher, there he studied classic and English literature. As a young boy he
travels to Kingston, the capital of his country and for the first time he experiences the racial
segregation among white people and people of color. In 1912, he arrives to the United States
where he is again surprised by the segregation norms in the cities. Through his travels, he
ends up in New York City where he becomes a mayor figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

While he was associated with the Harlem Renaissance he wrote about life in Harlem for
African Americans but some of his works had for setting Jamaica. His poetry was written in
classic forms, the Shakespearean sonnet was a form he often used, and it made the
statement that his writing was as neat and as brilliant as the one of the author of Othello.
The White House is one of such sonnets where he points out the hypocrisy of the white
society when it comes to admitting racial issues. But he also had more radical works. Claude
Mckay shared with Marcus Garvey the Jamaican nationality and some extreme views on the
racial panorama. Marcus Garvey called the African Americans and his people in Jamaica to
form their own nation while Mckay called them to fight back with the sonnet If We Must Die.
Writing a poem seems a lot less radical than giving public conferences exposing
controversial ideas, but it was just a different platform to move hearts and souls. If We Must
Die is a response to the Red Summer of 1919, Mckay made his posture clear: He was no
pacifist, he had racial conscience and he was calling his people to take a stand.

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Carla Mara Durn Ugalde/ American Literature/ PhD Andrew McKeown/ March 27, 2017/1600
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After some years of contributing to the Harlem Renaissance movement, Mckay felt that there
was a sense of bourgeois that did not go well with him since he was also fond of the ideas
of communism. In 1922 Mckay officially leaves the movement and travels to the Soviet Union
just to be disappointed by it too due to the cruel measurements the system had to imply to
work. Despite the disillusion the two movements represented to him he continued to write
his racial concerns in works such as GingerTown.

The same year Mckay ceased to be related with the Harlem Renaissance he published
Harlem Shadows, a poetry book where When Dawn Comes to the City can be found. The
poems included in this book still show the life lived by African Americans in the city; The
Harlem Dancer is a sonnet that describes a scene where people are amused by an African
American prostitute dancing on the streets. But there are also poems that go to the country
side and praise its beauty and its goodness, making a contrast with the perversions of the
city.

Such is the case of When dawn Comes to the City. In this poem, Claude McKay describes
how the day begins in New York city and slowly drifts away in his imagination to the rural
environment where he grew up. The same author that wrote If we Must Die as a war cry
now is involved in a nostalgic atmosphere that takes him back to a personal place, and still
manages to make a political statement by giving the countryside all the good qualities and
the city the negative ones. McKay achieves this through the rhythm and rhyme of the poem.
As said before, Mckay enjoyed using the meter of the Shakespearean sonnet still he does
not use this same structure in When dawn Comes to the City but certainly the structure
was as carefully taken care of as in any of his sonnets.

The poem begins with a stanza of eight verses with the rhyme scheme of: ABABCDCD. A
similar stanza is found later, again eight verses with a simple rhyme structure, this time:
ABABACAC, ever more repetitive than the first time. These stanzas are the ones that talk
about the city. Mckay makes the dawn in New York a sensorial experience, he describes
the houses to be cold and the workers are dehumanized into dark figures without a specific
shape nor facial expression; the dawn in New York is red and gray, a contrast of violent
colors. But more than colors or the sensation of coldness, the dawn in New York is an
experience of noise.

By using the rhyme scheme previously pointed out Mckay, on purpose, makes those stanzas
as bland to the hearing as a boiled potato is to the taste. The short verses and the stanzas

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Carla Mara Durn Ugalde/ American Literature/ PhD Andrew McKeown/ March 27, 2017/1600
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considered of minor art show that there is something horrid about waking up in the city. The
dawn in New York does not contain any sort of music, it contains noise: grumbling, moaning,
groaning, rumbling cars and carts. Those sounds make no melody but a continuous
annoying tune (ABABCDCD ABABACAC) that reminds people of their doom to routine as
another morning begins with the usual rush.

The counterpart to these stanzas are the ones about the countryside. They are composed
by fourteen verses, just like the sonnets, but the rhyme scheme does not match the one
used in the Shakespearean ones; EEFEFCF FFEFEEC, in fact it does not seem to have
any kind of identifiable pattern. This reveals a crucial trait about the rural environment; in the
countryside, there is freedom, not known by the dull noise of routine in the city. The rhythm
in the stanzas is kept by the eleven-syllable length of the verses, which also requires a
longer breath than the short verses from the city, again meaning that rural life allows
breathing slowly while the rhythm of New York must go faster.

Mckay uses onomatopoeias to describe sounds of the countryside: crowing, crackling,


neighing, braying And they are repeated, as if creating music with an animal orchestra.
The descriptions of the lawn and the lea are fresh and humid, as if it was not enough, he
makes sure to mention that the water falls joyously over the rocks. The countryside
described by Mckay is so appealing that the reader might hear in his head while going
through the verses the Suite No. 1 of Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg.

One can assume that the symphonic countryside is specifically Jamaica, which Mckay calls
the island of the sea. Probably the scenery that Mckay builds up in the poem is specifically
his parents farm. Some of the animals have names, and he evens calls Ned, the donkey,
dear, as if he had known him personally. The two stanzas about the countryside are the
same, no new sounds are added the second time it appears in the poem, as if that was all
he could remember and goes to that very same memory repeatedly.

On the other hand, the second stanza about the city reveals that some time has passed; at
first the stars were dull and now they are dying, meaning the sun is coming out, also there
is a new sound: the newsboy running and humming. This means that for sure, Mckay is
writing from the city and that almost certainly the rural scene is a memory. The resulting is
effect is that the day is beginning in New York and that annoyed by the noise he merges
slowly into the rural memories and gets awaken again by the noise.

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Carla Mara Durn Ugalde/ American Literature/ PhD Andrew McKeown/ March 27, 2017/1600
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By playing with the sweet appealing memory of the country side and the interruptions of
noise, Mckay states that all source of doom is found in the city, while in the country one can
live an idyllic pastoral life. Even if the description of the rural setting is extremally subjective
since it comes from Mckays memories and he speaks from his own nostalgia, it is important
to recall that such posture was founded in his real, firsthand experience with the cities. Back
in his village most the population was people of color, it was until he visited Kingston that he
encountered racism and in New York he faced the most radical segregation.

When Dawn Comes to the City is a poem that comes from a very personal place, it has
everything to do with Claude Mckays personal history. Still, it is not an autobiography and
as a man compromised with the racial issues of his time, he turns his nostalgia and his
struggles to call attention to the mean spirit that the city contains.

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Carla Mara Durn Ugalde/ American Literature/ PhD Andrew McKeown/ March 27, 2017/1600
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Reference used for the biographical data

Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 2017. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-


and-poets/poets/detail/claude-mckay>.