Outcast – Claude McKay
Claude McKay was a Jamaican-American writer and poet that came to recognition during the Harlem Renaissance for his literary works against the racism that had still existed in America at that time.
Throughout his early years in America, McKay struggled to find a place for himself. In “Outcast”, He expresses in the first quatrain his desires to be in a romanticized, pre-colonial Africa: “…the dim regions whence [his] fathers came,” (line 1) where his “soul would sing forgotten jungle songs,” (line 4) and where he can live in “darkness” and “peace”. In the second quatrain, however, McKay suggests that the black “soul” could never return to that romanticized, pre-colonial Africa:
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
The oppressed and enslaved speaker must pay his “fee” like a slave paying services to his lord, and must “bend [his] knee” to the “alien gods” or his white masters. While the physical body is trapped in this racist America, the “soul” keeps on longing hopelessly for that pre-colonial Africa where the speaker could find himself singing “forgotten jungle songs.”
In the third stanza, McKay realizes that this pre-colonial Africa does not exist, and expresses a lost of that hopeless longing: “Something in me is lost, forever lost, / Some vital thing has gone out of my heart.” (Lines 9, 10) So by the end of this poem, Africa has gone from a place of hope to a place that lacks the spiritual freedom that the speaker desires. And because of that, McKay realizes that the black soulless “body” must roam the world like vagabonds, since it has no place of belonging; not colonial Africa, nor racist America: “And I must walk the way of life a ghost / Among the sons of earth, a thing apart.” (Lines 11, 12)
“Outcast” shows McKay struggled to find a place for himself in America, but ultimately found himself in the end alone, “far from [his] native clime,” out of place and “out of time.”
This poem is written in the form of a sonnet, with the typical 14 lines, 3 stanzas and a couplet, and an almost perfectly rhymed iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme “ababdedefgfghh”. One thing I noticed was the presence of an extra syllable in line 8, which has 11 syllables, which may have been placed there on purpose, perhaps to signify the powerful image that that lone line presents: “While to its alien gods I bend my knee.” One can easily imagine the author actually on his knees in slavery to his white masters from reading this line.
I always find it impressive that poets can produce such powerful works and do so in rhymed iambic pentameter. Simply amazing.