We Wear the Mask

Sep 14, 2017 in Literature

We Wear the Mask by Paul Lawrence Dunbar initially appeared in his first publication Lyrics of Lowly Life. The poet comes from the family of black slaves, and much of his poetry is about the oppression of black people. The work chosen for the analysis resembles a cry of a desperate man whose dreams seem to be unreachable. Despite the fact that the theme of the poem is rather black, Dunbar uses vivid imagery and symbolism, thus manages to make it very objective and true not only for oppressed Americans, but for everyone who wears a mask to survive in the world.

In his poem, Dunbar addresses the issue of the oppression of black Americans who, regardless of their feelings, had to come to terms with the situation. However, the poem is still very topical nowadays, because Dunbar discusses a life of lies most people choose to live. The narrator is the author himself, but he clearly speaks on behalf of all humankind. That is why he uses a personal pronoun “we” instead of “I”. He admits that people are insincere in what they do and feel – while their hearts are bleeding, they wear a mask and smile. Although the speaker realizes that human actions do not correspond to their desires, he admits that nothing is about to change: “But let the world dream otherwise / we wear the mask!” (Dunbar, lines 14 - 15). The poem is written as a monologue, but it is also an appeal to the reader – Dunbar obviously would like people to be sincere to themselves and live a happier life. His question “Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sighs?” is addressed to everyone but no one in particular (Dunbar, lines 6- 7). It looks like the author wants to hear the answer, but at the same time, he already knows it. So, he just speaks about human sadness, admitting the truth and knowing that not much can be changed. He feels (and his predictions happened to be true) that he and his people will have to spend much time in pain before something changes, and he says “and long the mile”, so, they still have much to overcome.

We Wear the Mask is the expression of a deep personal regret, and at the same time it is a peculiar psychological analysis of people, for the author is trying to look behind the mask and reveal their “alter ego”. He describes their dubious nature: although they smile, one can still hear their cries and see their “torn and bleeding hearts”. Here, he addresses God, just as most people do in the time of trouble: “O great Christ, our cries / to the from tortured souls arise”, and it is another proof of Dunbar’s despair (Dunbar, lines 11 - 12). It is called apostrophe, and this is one of the number of the figures of speech occurring in the poem. He does not mention what exactly makes people behave contrary to their wishes, but one can presume these are the objective conditions, so they do so not solely out of their initiative. Taking into account the historical background, the poem rose from the observation of white’s maltreatment of black. In the eighth line, Dunbar says “let them only see us”, so he divides people into those similar to him and the different ones. Obviously, he speaks of the division between black and white people, where black suffer, but pretend to be satisfied. Given the conditions in the country, it is clear to the reader why people actually hide their feelings – they are afraid of a possible retaliation, so they hide their anguish not only from white Americans, but also from one another.

The organization of the piece under analysis and the tropes the author uses are very appropriate and help reinforce the effect it has on the reader. When reading the poem aloud, one might feel it has a militant-like rhythm. All the lines, except two, are in iambic tetrameter which adds to the effect. There is also an epiphora “we wear the mask”, which not only drives the theme of the poem, but also helps make its rhythm more pounding. Alliteration, particularly of the consonants “w” and “m”, appears in the poem and improves its sounding. Dunbar uses the words containing a long /i/ sound, like in the words lies, eyes, over-wise, vile, mile, etc. and they also help create rhyme and rhythm. The sounding of the poem evokes in my mind a picture of countless people marching a line without stopping, following shattered dreams, with their eyes empty and their stars meaningless. All these make me feel somewhat alerted and a little anxious. I believe We Wear the Mask is very harmonic, for its content and form complement each other.

Although the theme of the poem is consistent with its title, its meaning is figurative and very profound. Dunbar uses the metaphor of mask which people wear to hide their faces, and consequently, their true identities from the rest of the world. However, the act of wearing a mask might signify many things. Firstly, it might be a willful act, so people let the deception into their live on purpose. In the first stanza, the speaker implies that such deception has existed for a long time, and it has become a common thing: “This debt we pay to human guile” (Dunbar, line 3). The mask “shades our eyes”, and it is a popular belief that eyes are the mirror of human soul. In the second stanza, Dunbar argues that other cannot watch our secret lives whenever they want it. Peculiar is the line number twelve: “We sing, but oh the clay is vile”, because it alludes numerous myths about human creation (Dunbar).  He also speaks of clay “beneath our feet” which might also symbolize a path every person on earth travels during his or her lifetime. Dunbar suggests that the way of life people lead has a negative impact on our spirituality which we decided to hide and protect from others behind masks.

In the numerous implications the poem carries, there are two more ideas worth mentioning. First of all, saying that the world will be “over-wise” if it pays attention to the troubles of black people, Dunbar implies that people are not psychologically ready to take care of someone else’s pain. And the immersion into problems of others might bring guilt which diminishes the value of sympathy. While Dunbar questions the necessity of the world’s commitment, he sees that white people are stuck in their own traps, because they continue dreaming. The poet comes to a conclusion that they should be let dream, knowing that sooner or later they will wake up and realize no one can escape their own actions.

Provided that We Wear the Mask is the expression of Dunbar’s pain for all the oppressed black, the poem is paradoxical: on the one hand, there is not a single word which would directly discuss black people and prejudices prevailing in the society. Therefore, even the poem itself seems to wear a mask. On the other hand, however, the author does reveal his hurt and pain, he does speak of his feelings openly, so he actually takes off the mask. Still, the narrator can be perceived not as a specific man, but as someone who has no name, age, race, etc. In this case, the poem discusses not a particular group of people, but anyone who conceals his or her feelings.

To sum up, We Wear the Mask is a poem of paradoxes: it addresses only black people and everyone else, the narrator is a black man in pain and a universal voice without race, it speaks about people smiling while their hearts are bleeding and tears are falling from their eyes, its main idea is pretty straightforward but has numerous implications at the same time. Dunbar skillfully applies different poetic devices, such as alliteration, anaphora and metaphors to create a poem with profound meaning and good rhythm, both of which have a lasting effect on the readers. Taking into account all mentioned above, one might conclude that being very clear, the poem is actually very complicated, just like everything else wearing a mask.

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