We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Analysis: Form and Meter
Rondeau in Iambic Tetrameter
We know the names, and we kind of know what they mean. But here's our chance to delve into the nitty-gritty of the rondeau form and iambic tetrameter. We know you're on pins and needles right about now.
Let's start with the rondeau. Simply put, a rondeau is a type of poem that varies between 10-15 lines in length and is organized into three stanzas. Its opening words ("we wear the mask") later become the poem's refrain, which we see at the end of the second and third stanzas. It has only two rhymes, which look something like this in terms of patterns: AABBA AABc AABAc, where A and B represent a particular end rhyme (line 1 rhymes with lines 2 and 5; line 3 rhymes with line 4, etc.), and c here represents the refrain.
Piece of cake, right? Actually, the rondeau is one of the simpler types of verse because it only has those two rhymes. So once you have those two squared away, you need only keep track of where they occur. For Dunbar's poem we noticed that the first set of rhymes (A) consists of the words "lies," "eyes," "subtleties," "wise," "sighs," "cries," "arise," "otherwise." The second set (B) consists of the words "guile," "smile," "while," "vile," "mile." And finally our refrain (c) stands alone in terms of rhyme: "we wear the mask."
Now that we know the details, you're probably wondering what all the trouble is for. There are lots of reasons why poets choose to go with specific types of forms, but usually it's to accent the words and themes in a lyrical sort of way. In a song, we kind of anticipate when the chorus will occur, which makes the song stick with us a bit easier ("I can't get no… sa-tis-fac-tion…"). The same thing is true about refrains and the rondeau. We know when the refrain will occur in Dunbar's poem and since "we wear the mask" is the poem's main idea, there's no forgetting what it's all about. Not to mention the seriousness of the speaker's message that ought to stick with us.
With us so far? Great. Now on to iambic tetrameter: This kind of meter is one of the most commonly used in poetry. It consists of unstressed and then stressed syllable pairs (called—you guessed it—iambs), occurring four times (tetra- means four) in each line for a grand total of eight syllables. Sonically, we get a beat pattern that sounds like daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. Check it out:
We wear the mask that grins and lies, (1)
Hear that? Presto—iambic tetrameter. In a typical rondeau, the only diversion occurs during the refrain, where we get a total of only four syllables instead of eight in this case. So in "We Wear the Mask," the only lines that don't get the iambic tetrameter treatment are lines 9 and 15.
It's also a super-rhythmic kind of meter that we hear in songs all the time. So using that iambic swing makes poems, like songs, really easy to remember. And when you're talking about serious stuff like Dunbar is, you want your reader to avoid switching on the boob tube and forgetting all about those important ideas.