The Poem

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” combines salient features of verse essay and poetic meditation as it examines the need for a special kind of social dissembling in the world in which the author lived at the end of the nineteenth century. The poem presents readers with a speaker who speaks in first-person plural, as “we” and never simply “I.” This clearly indicates that the speaker should be regarded as representing a particular or special segment of society. The opening stanza of the poem indicates that the group represented by the speaker pays a “debt” to “human guile” by wearing a “mask that grins and lies.” This does not provide any indication that the speaker is not simply speaking for all human beings who have at some time engaged in pretending to be happy when they really are sad.

However, in the second stanza, the idea that the speaker is representing a particular segment of society becomes clearer when the poem indicates that “the world” need not be aware of the true feelings of the sufferers. Indeed, the speaker suggests that the world should only be allowed to “see us, while/ We wear the mask.” This suggests something beyond merely dissembling for the sake of duplicity or dishonesty.

This mask that “grins and lies” is hiding the existence of excruciating misery and suffering. The speaker says, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/ To thee from tortured souls arise.” There can be...

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Forms and Devices

Paul Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” is sometimes referred to as a “muted protest” poem. It is frequently discussed in connection with another poem of his, entitled “Sympathy.” Any protest in “We Wear the Mask” is vaguely implied and never openly stated. Instead, the poem informs readers that what they might see and hear might not be the whole truth, or even an accurate partial truth, about a group of humans who might appear on the surface to be quite simple and totally lacking in any complexity of emotion or thought patterns.

The thematic statement “We wear the mask” begins the opening line of this fifteen-line poem. It is repeated as a refrain at the ends of both the second and third stanzas. The final time, it is followed by an exclamation point, which emphasizes the essential importance of this idea. Thus, the reader is being told to keep this masking practice in mind while reading the poem and while attempting to evaluate an outwardly simplistic group of people.

Dunbar makes use of only two rhyme sounds in this solemn meditation. While the word “subtleties” at the end of stanza 1 does not actually rhyme with “lies” and “eyes,” it provides an example of eye rhyme. That is to say, it looks as if it could rhyme with those other words. The poet’s use of “myriad” and “subtleties” together might send younger readers scurrying for the dictionary. At the same time, it sends to readers already familiar with...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexander, Eleanor. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. Albany: New York University Press, 2001.

Best, Felton O. Crossing the Color Line: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1996.

Bone, Robert. Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Hudson, Gossie Harold. A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1999.

Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Turner, Darwin T. “Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Rejected Symbol.” Journal of Negro History, January, 1967, 1-13.

Wagner, Jean. “Paul Laurence Dunbar.” In Black Poets of the United States from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated by Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.