The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 462 words.)