Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
- Line 10 begins with the repetition of that "smile" that covers everything up, reminding us that those phony masks are the real problem.
- The speaker then looks to be reaching for spiritual guidance ("O great Christ") and the chance for salvation ("souls arise").
- The allusion to Christ emphasizes the speaker's need for help that the world will not provide.
- Additionally, "O great Christ" is an example of an apostrophe (addressing someone who's not really there), which makes the speaker's emotional conflict feel all the more daunting.
- Also we see more duality in line 10 that begins with "smile" and ends with "cries." The speaker seems to be emphasizing that "torn" metaphor that we saw earlier in lines 3 and 4 with all of these opposing forces.
- So by the third stanza we start to see more of the truth behind the masks. And as we see the truth, we begin to notice that the speaker's language is becoming more emotional and distraught: "O great Christ," "cries," "tortured."
- And the plain truth of the matter is that these are "tortured souls" that are crying for help even if they appear to "smile."
- We have more enjambment here too that keeps the ideas in lines 10 and 11 connected without interruption. So we get the sense that the speaker is meditating here on his people's plight and need for spiritual guidance without any punctuation getting in the way.
- And just like we saw earlier, this couplet ("cries" and "arise") fits with that first end rhyme we've already seen repeated: "lies" and "eyes," "wise" and "sighs."
- Psst—don't forget about "Form and Meter."
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
- So not only are these folks smiling through their pain but they're also singing. Again, here's more of an indication of something that appears to be content but isn't. Think of blues music, for example. What musicians sing about is awfully sad, even if it still sounds nice.
- All that "singing" might also be an allusion to the common stereotypes associated with black Americans who all supposedly love to sing and entertain, though we know of course that's not true.
- The second half of line 12 works more with some of the biblical allusions we saw in the previous lines. The "clay" here is the earth but it may also be a reference to the origins of man: "Remember that you have made me like clay" (Job 10:8-12).
- So the speaker is saying that they're singing through the pain while standing above the earth that's "vile" (wicked) because it provides only pain and suffering for these folks. And yet that vile earth is still their home/origins, which makes things even worse.
- Notice too that the language here has that same sort of emotional distress ("oh the clay is vile") that we saw in lines 10 and 11 ("O great Christ"). So at this point we're seeing behind the mask more fully and things are awfully sad back there.
- And yet those "feet" and the imagery of walking that long mile indicate that there's hope. Perhaps this is all part of the journey, as difficult as it may be.
- But since that mile is "long," we understand that there's still quite a way to go before any salvation or redemption can be had.
- And finally we notice that we have another instance of the poem's second rhyme: "vile" and "mile" match "guile/smile/while." Again, all part of the rondeau form. You want more on that? Check out "Form and Meter."
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
- Dunbar ends his poem as a rondeau should, with another line ("otherwise") matching the first rhyme scheme of "lies/eyes/sighs," etc. (Again, it all makes sense in "Form and Meter," we promise.)
- And also keeping with the rondeau form, we get the refrain one last time to end the poem with a lyrical bang.
- But back to the words themselves. We notice that the speaker is reminding us of that worldly responsibility that has yet to be acknowledged: "let the world dream otherwise."
- If the world is dreaming, it's safe to assume that people aren't savvy to what's really going on, mostly because the world chooses not to be. Again, perhaps it's easier to just accept the mask and avoid the truth.
- And we hear that word "let" again as if the world is being spared the harsh reality, kind of similar to the way a child might experience things. We "let" children do things. Meanwhile we're dealing with adults here, so the tone is a bit patronizing on purpose.
- Bear in mind too that this dream that the world is having is more of a nightmare to the speaker and those he represents than anything else.
- So by the very end we see the mask in the same sort of way it appeared in the first stanza, only this time we get that extra exclamation point to drive it all home. And by now we know what's really behind the mask: lies, cries, and pain that folks aren't being honest about.
- We also understand that the "masks" people wear, no matter what they look like, are not to be completely trusted. What can be trusted is honest discussion and the efforts people make to fix the hurtful and destructive stuff they see around them.