Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
- The second stanza starts with a rhetorical question (a question in which we don't expect someone to give us a real answer, like Who does that?). And rhetorical questions are usually used to prove a point, so we know the speaker is trying to emphasize what we've seen so far in terms of masks, suffering, hypocrisies, etc.
- Notice that this question has a slightly sarcastic tone to it, as if the speaker is suggesting that there's nothing "over-wise" about knowing the truth that's plain to see, with or without the masks. In other words, if something is pretty much staring you in the face (segregation, lack of civil rights, violence), then taking notice of it doesn't take all that much "wisdom."
- By line 6, we also get more of the universal themes behind the poem when the speaker includes the word "world." The problems he's referring to involve everyone, even if some people choose to ignore them.
- We have more figurative language in line 7 too ("counting all our tears and sighs") that emphasizes the severity of the truth behind those masks. The words "all our" tell us that there are many tears and many sighs to "count" and they don't just belong to the speaker.
- So, by the second stanza we begin to more fully understand that the speaker represents a much larger group beyond himself, even if he doesn't provide specifics.
- What about the connotations of the word "counting"? Is there something tiresome about this word, as if there are too many to count?
- Maybe there's even something statistical about it, as if those tears and sighs are just numbers rather than real evidence of human suffering.
- Whichever way we choose to read lines 6 and 7, we understand that there is real pain being felt by many people and that the world has a responsibility to recognize it. Perhaps the people wearing the masks also have a responsibility to themselves and each other to be honest about their suffering.
- Notice too that this couplet fits with the poem's first rhyme: "wise" and "sighs." So Dunbar is sticking with the rondeau form. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on all that.
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
- In lines 6 and 7 we saw the rhetorical question that emphasized the truth behind the masks, while here in lines 8 and 9 we see just the mask and the people wearing them.
- So the speaker is saying here that, instead of the world seeing the truth, they see only the masks and the lies.
- And again the tone here in "let them" suggests that the world is being spared the truth, via ignorance, perhaps because the truth is harder to accept than the mask.
- But the speaker is reminding us that the people wearing the mask need to be more honest about their situation too. So all the sarcasm that we hear is stressing the problem that exists on both sides: the world that ignores the problem and the people suffering who aren't being honest.
- We have our first instance of enjambment here too, that takes us from one line to the next without any pauses that come with punctuation. So we're eased right into the refrain "we wear the mask," which makes it stand out in comparison to the rest of the poem.
- And since line 9 is the poem's refrain, we know it's supposed to stand out and that it's mighty important to the rondeau form. After all, it's what the poem is all about, and the speaker is reminding us of that here. Go on and check out "Form and Meter" for more.