‘We Wear the Mask’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a three stanza poem which is separated into one set of five lines, one of four, and one of six. The poem is structured in the form of a rondeau. This form is defined by having 10-15 lines and being organized into three stanzas. The rhyme scheme of this piece is repetitive, oriented around a refrain. In this case the pattern is, aabba aabc aabac. The end sounds repeat throughout this piece, with the refrain, “We wear the mask” appearing at the end of the second and third stanza.
In regards to meter, the lines follow a pattern of iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, or iambs. They consist of an unstressed and stressed syllable. The only time the pattern changes is in the refrain which only contains two sets of beats.
Summary of We Wear the Mask
‘We Wear the Mask’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar describes the way that “We” put on, and accept the presence of masks.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that “We,” a reference to all of humankind, but specifically black Americans, put on masks. We wear them and others use them to ignore the problems that exist in modern society. They have a deep impact on our understanding of ourselves and others. Hearts are changed through tearing and mouths contain endless expressions.
The poem continues on to sarcastically ask why humankind should put out the effort to see behind the masks. It is so clear that we should take the time, but the world does not seem willing to.
In conclusion the speaker describes the unsteady foundation on which “We” sing. Positivity and optimism can only last so long on a faulty foundation.
Analysis of We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by utilizing the refrain. It is also the line which later became the title of the poem. He is using the word “We” to allow the reader to include themselves in the text. All people are among those who “wear mask[s].”
That being said, Dunbar is well-known as a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance. This likely means that the “We” is geared more towards black Americans. The type of masks that “We” wear include “grins and lies.” One readily puts on another face for any particular situation. Lies, for when one needs to pretend to be something they aren’t, and grins for getting by in uncomfortable situations.
These masks hide someone’s real “cheeks and…eyes.” It puts one at distance from their surroundings. The speaker goes on to attribute the masks to being the product of “human guile.” In this context guile refers to a general deceitfulness. This is an overwhelming human trait. It is nearly impossible to get through modern life completely as ones self.
The mask is expanded from one’s face to their heart in the last two lines. It is also one’s own emotional or moral state that changes from situation to situation. It causes hearts to bleed and tear. One’s mouth contains a smile but also a “myriad,” or a great variety of, “subtleties.”
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
The fourth stanza of this piece is a quatrain, meaning it contains four lines. These lines begin with the speaker asking a rhetorical question. He does no expect to receive an answer. This does not mean the question lacks importance. It is posed to make one consider the state of the world and perhaps further the question themselves.
He asks why the “world be over-wise” in its counting of “all our tears and sighs?” While this is a very serious question, it is clear the speaker finds something ironic about it. It does not take much skill to take in the”tears and sighs” of the world. These are clear emotional expressions which are used here to represent the deepest of societal problems. Dunbar was likely referring to the struggle to achieve equal rights, overcome segregation and racial violence. Anyone living in the world can see that these things are present and deeply problematic, even if they are obscured by masks.
Rather than the world taking a very small amount of time to consider the truth behind the mask, they “only see” the surface. This is due to a general ignorance but also a choice. The use of the word “counting” emphasizes this fact. The troubles of the world are so numerous they are too many to count. It becomes a strain on those who do not have to deal with them in their everyday lives.
In the final line the speaker brings back in the title of the poem, “We wear the mask.” This line is used as a reminder that not only are the troubles of the world obscured, they are purposefully hidden, at least to some extent.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
The final stanza of this piece contains six lines. It begins with the speaker increasing the already dark nature of the piece. He explains how “We smile” but no matter what the “cries” come out from “tortured souls.” They “arise” from behind the mask and into the real, knowable world.
He sets up a second contrast in the next lines with a comparison between the “sing[ing]” that “We” participate in and the ground on which “We” stand. One is only able to overcome an unsteady and dangerous situation for a limited period of time. Singing can only go on for so long on a world built on a “vile” structure.
In the final lines the speaker explains that the “vile” clay stretches on far “Beneath our feet.” It lasts for miles on end. He concludes by utilizing another sarcastic statement. It is quite impactful at this point as no one should be willing to “dream” through the pain experienced by others.