The poem begins with an "apostrophe," an address to an object or spirit. Here, as the title indicates, this address is a prayer to the masks, which appear in the poem both as works of African art and as more general spirits of African culture, society, and history. The poet lists the colors of the masks as black, red, black-and-white, thus also suggesting the reference of the masks as symbols of race and skin color. In the third line, Senghor suggests that these masks are also spirits of nature, linked to the winds that blow from the four directions of north, south, east, and west. As spirits that blow, they also imply that the masks are related to the poet's breath and poetic inspiration. As the fourth line indicates, he greets them with silence, as if listening to what the mask-spirits will whisper to him on the wind.
The poet introduces his family's guardian animal, the lion, symbol of aristocratic virtue and courage. Traditionally these animals were thought to be the first ancestor and the protector of the family line. In mentioning his lion-headed ancestor, Senghor refers to the name of his father, Diogoye, which in his native Serer language means lion. In ceremonies where masks would be used, the family might be represented by a lion mask. In lines 6 and 7, Senghor further reinforces the implications of long tradition and patriarchal power. The lion guards the ground that is forbidden to women and to passing things, in favor of values, memories, and customs that stretch back into mythic antiquity.
These lines develop a complex relation between the faces of the ancestors, the poet's face, and the masks. Line 8 speaks of the masks as idealized representations of previously living faces. The masks eliminate the mobile features and signs of age in the faces of the living ancestors, but in doing so outlive their death. In turn, they are able to give shape to the face of the poet bent over the page and writing his prayer to the masks. He appeals to them to listen to him, for he is the living image of those masks to whom he is writing a prayer.
(The entire section is 886 words.)