Analysis

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Although “We Wear the Mask” makes few overt references to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s social or political context, the poem is richly suggestive when read in light of Dunbar’s broader project of exploring the Black American experience during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Read from such an angle, the poem’s collective “we” encompasses the Black American community rather than humanity in general. The references to “torn and bleeding hearts” and “tears and sighs” would then be markers of the suffering of Black Americans facing racism and prejudice rather than symbols of the generic range of human suffering.

In this Historicist a reading, the motif of the mask also takes on an altered meaning. The mask would be symbolic not of quotidian acts of concealed suffering but rather of the particular pain that Black Americans have felt, including the pain of living within a broader culture as a minority community that is often marginalized. Following that, the figure of “the world” would refer to the predominantly White social mainstream, who cannot—and, in many cases, choose not to—grasp the suffering of Black Americans. The speaker’s stance, then, is one of concealment and solidarity. The speaker discusses the act of concealing the suffering of the Black community from the attention of the broader culture. And the refrain of “we wear the mask,” which crescendos to an exclamatory conclusion, conveys a sense of group solidarity and collective action.

This Historicist reading, which attends to matters of biography and sociohistorical context, requires readers to look beyond the words on the page, whereas a New Critical approach would preclude such attention to context. It is a testament to the rich ambiguity and subtlety of Dunbar’s lyric that at least two distinct—albeit overlapping—readings are supported by the text. It is up to readers to consider multiple interpretive possibilities, especially when studying a poem as ambiguous as “We Wear the Mask.”

Taking the poem’s formal qualities into account, “We Wear the Mask” consists of fifteen lines—thirteen lines of eight syllables and two refrains of four syllables—and is written in iambic tetrameter. Because of the poem’s form and rhythmic, repetitive quality, “We Wear the Mask” is considered a rondeau, which is a verse form typical of medieval and Renaissance French poetry. Its rhyme scheme—aabba aabR aabbaR—is typical of the rondeau form. The poem’s musical nature and rhyme scheme are perhaps meant to reflect the tradition of slave songs in the United States, in which slaves recounted their struggles in musical form. 

The poem’s rondeau form, although common in French poetry, is not as standard in the English lyric tradition. Thus the form gives the poem a great deal of sonic coherence while also introducing a thread of unease and suspense. This tone of unease is developed at several formal levels. The end rhymes, familiar though they sound, are somewhat irregular and unexpected in their arrivals. At the level of meter, the poem’s usual tetrameter (or four-beat meter) is twice upended by the dimeter (or two-beat meter) refrain of “We wear the mask.” At the stanza level, the irregularity of the stanzas’ lengths subvert readers expectations of lyric structure. These formal tensions are in keeping with the racial tensions the poem explores, as well as various other thematic tensions: authenticity versus duplicity, innocence versus fallenness, and inner versus outer experience. Dunbar thus strikes a keen balance. The poem contains enough formal consistency to elicit readers’ expectations but enough inconsistency to evoke a sense of turbulence.

One of the more notable formal features of the poem is its use of refrain, a signature of the rondeau. The poem’s title, “We Wear the Mask,” is the refrain, and it appears once in each of the three stanzas. Like the other formal aspects of the poem, the refrain is at once consistent yet inconsistent, reliable yet jarring. Although the refrain appears in each stanza, each iteration is different. The refrain first appears as the opening phrase of the poem’s first line and represents the beginning of a longer statement: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes….” By contrast, the second and third iterations of the refrain occur at the end of their respective stanzas and, for emphasis, are isolated in their own indented lines. Moreover, the dimeter of the refrain makes these second and third iterations stand out rhythmically from the longer tetrameter pulse that carries through the rest of the poem. The third iteration distinguishes itself by its exclamation mark, which adjusts the emotional tone of the phrase, despite the identical wording. Whereas the phrase connotes dismay and compromise in the first two iterations, in the third it expresses solidarity and resolve, if not hope.

The poem is not a sonnet, but its fifteen-line form bears a resemblance to the fourteen-line sonnet. A sonnet is composed of two main sections: the eight-line octave, often presented as two quatrains, followed by the six-line sestet. “We Wear the Mask” has a similar balance, with its first two stanzas establishing the subject matter and its final sexain constituting a kind of sestet that brings the poem to a close. In sonnets, the beginning of the sestet is defined by a volta, a rhetorical and thematic turning point. The tenth line of “We Wear the Mask” operates much like a volta, raising the poem’s tone to an invocatory cry and accentuating the thematic contrast between inner suffering and outer show.

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