We Wear the Mask

Paul Laurence Dunbar

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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!

Dive in: 
  1. A rondeau is a French poetic form composed of 15 lines, each of which contains between eight and 10 syllables. How does the poem’s rondeau structure reinforce its message?
     
  2. How does the metaphor of the mask evolve between the first two lines and the last two lines of the poem?
     
  3. In reading the lines ‘This debt we pay to human guile’ and ‘O great Christ, our cries / To thee from tortured souls arise’, how would you describe the speaker’s relationship to humanity, and to the god figure he calls upon?
     
  4. Who do you think ‘we’ and ‘them’ refer to? What might the speaker be gaining by letting ‘them only see us’ and letting ‘the world dream otherwise’?
     
  5. Identify the verbs and adjectives that denote an emotional tone, for example ‘grins and lies’ and ‘tears and sighs’, and think about how you can imply these emotions using only your voice for an evocative recitation.

 

Writing Exercise

Write about a moment in your life in which you found yourself figuratively wearing a mask. What pushed you to do so? What was too ugly or painful to show?

 

Useful Links

We Wear the Mask Form and Meter - Rondeau in Iambic Tetrameter

We Wear the Mask - Meaning of the Poem

The Mask by Maya Angelou

 

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