We Wear the Mask

We Wear the Mask

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Summary of We Wear the Mask

  • Popularity: Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” is a lyrical poem about the lives of African Americans after the Civil War. The poet explains how the people had to pretend that everything is better and the mental torture they went through. It was first published in 1896 in Lyrics of Lowly Life. The popularity of the poem lies in the fact that it reflects the miserable plight of African Americans forced to hide their painful realities and frustrations under the mask of happiness and contentment. This poem won national recognition for Dunbar as the first African American poet.
  • Art of Masking as a Surviving Tool: The poet gives expression to his opinion about the discrimination faced by African Americans. During the Civil War, they lived in a shared environment with unemotional and cold people. To survive, they had to bury their sufferings, miseries, and pain at the bottom of their hearts. The toxic and shared environment never allowed them to open their hearts without resultant agony and distress. The speaker suggests that we should not allow people to know our sufferings. Instead, we should let them believe in our masked faces. According to him, African Americans were paying a heavy price for using this strategy. Although they are heart-broken, yet they exhibit gladness. Behind faulty smiles of the mask lies their plea to Christ. They sing their song to Christ because they know that God sees them.
  • Major Themes: The major themes of the poem include racism, appearance versus reality, lying, and deceit. The poet illustrates the effect of suffering endured by black people due to their race. They are compelled to learn the art of fake happiness. Not only did this art saves them from racial discrimination but it also enables them to keep their real pain hidden from the world. The universal subject can easily grab the reader’s attention, equally inspiring the African Americans and other races.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “We Wear the Mask”

Literary devices are used to bring richness and clarity to the texts. The writers use them to make their texts appealing and meaningful. Dunbar, too, has used some literary devices in this poem to make it appealing to the readers. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem is given below.

  1. Paradox: It is the juxtaposition of a set of seemingly contradictory concepts that reveal the hidden or unexpected truths. Dunbar has not stated that the poem is about African Americans. However, the subject of the poem “mask” reveals his feelings about the pains of slavery.
  2. Metaphor: The poet has used the extended metaphor of “mask” to illustrate the false persona that people put on to hide their real feelings and true emotions from other people.
  3. Personification: Personification is giving human characteristics to lifeless objects or even animals. Dunbar has used personification at several places in this poem. For example, “Let the world dream”; “We wear the mask that grins and lies” are two personifications where the world and the mask have been shown as having human emotions.
  4. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds such as the sound of /r/ in “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries” and /w/ sound in “Why should the world be over-wise.”
  5. Apostrophe: Apostrophe is used to directly address an absent person or entity. Dunbar has used the apostrophe in the opening lines of the third stanza, “O great Christ, our cries / To thee from tortured souls arise.” The poet directly addresses Christ in an appeal for his intervention.
  6. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things through five senses. It enables them to create a mental picture of the object described. The poet has used visual imagery such as, “torn and bleeding hearts”; “We smile” and “Beneath our feet.”

The careful glimpse of this analysis shows that the poet has skillfully projected his ideas using these literary devices. The universality of the subject is beautifully discussed under the cover of these literary devices.

Analysis of Poetic Devices in “We Wear the Mask”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is the poetic form of some lines. There are three stanzas in this poem and each stanza consists of five lines.
  2. Repetition: There is a repetition of the phrase, “We wear the Mask” which has created a musical quality in the poem.
  3. Iambic Tetrameter: The poem follows unconventional rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter which means there are four feet in each line, or each unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable as in the first line of the poem, “We wear the mask that grins and ”
  4. Refrain: The lines are repeated at some distance in the poem are called a refrain. Similarly, the title, “We wear the Mask” is repeated. Thus, it has become refrain as it has been repeated in all stanzas.

Quotes to be Used

These lines can be used in speech to encourage sad, heartbroken, or downtrodden people. It could also be used to teach the quality of acceptance and fake happiness if they have to encourage others but not for hiding our true selves.

“Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.”