We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
The speaker opens with the title of the poem, so we know this idea of wearing masks is mighty important since we've heard it twice already (once in the title and now in line 1).
We notice that he's getting right to the point instead of building up to it, so there's no question as to what this poem is driving at: we wear disguises that look nice ("grins"), but which are actually nothing but lies.
Notice too the use of "we," which invites the reader to imagine himself as part of the poem's subject, making the meaning more universal.
But, since we're not sure who exactly that "we" is referring to, we can assume it more specifically refers to black Americans of the time, since Dunbar was an early pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance that came later in the 1920s.
By the way, these lines rhyme, right? And they kind of have a daDUM daDUM thing going on, too.
So you know what that means, Shmoopers: it's a metered poem. In this case we're looking at iambic tetrameter, which means we have unstressed and then stressed syllables occurring four times in each line. (Don't sweat about the crazy poetry terms too much. Hop on over to "Form and Meter" for all those details.)
Spoiler alert (only because we just have to point a few things out). The poem is also composed as a rondeau, meaning it's got 15 lines with only two repeating rhymes and a refrain (repeating line, or lines, of verse—like a chorus). The couplet we get here gives us our first rhyme: "lies" and "eyes." Again, check out "Form and Meter" for more on this kind of stuff.
We know that masks are often used as symbols for disguises and deception. We hide behind them for different reasons, but here we notice that these masks aren't just for dress-up. What else could they represent? Check out our "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section for some ideas.
In line 2 the people wearing them are "shad[ing] [their] eyes" (some figurative language here), which suggests they can't even "see" clearly and likewise can't be seen by others.
There's some symbolism then in line 2 that's getting at the essence of our humanity and the way we express (or don't express) our true feelings. "Cheeks" often indicate how we're feeling (think of blushing) and "eyes" are thought to be the windows to our soul.
So if both of these are "hidden," then we know we're not showing how we really feel.
This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
Line 3 tells us that the people wearing these masks owe it all to "human guile." Fancy word check: "guile" simply means a sort of deceitfulness, not being real.
But notice the speaker says "human guile," which again suggests that the poem can be applied to not just the black American struggle but also the general human struggle. After all, telling lies and being someone we're not is just a common part of daily life.
And just like we saw in lines 1 and 2, these lines also have a lot of figurative language that's building upon the extended metaphor of masks representing human deception: "torn and bleeding hearts we smile."
Line 4 begins to develop the truths behind those masks and we get the sense that there's a lot of pain there.
Those hearts are not just "torn" but also "bleeding" which really emphasizes the struggle and duality that the speaker is addressing (duality is kind of like the Force in Star Wars; you've got the "Dark side" and the good side that the Jedis defend, so we're talking about opposites here).
If someone is "torn," that usually means that there are two sides pulling at the same time. And if someone is "bleeding," we can assume that that person is injured—figuratively of course.
And we understand the metaphor even more when we consider the imagery of a mask. On one side there's the disguise, and on the other—there's the truth.
That "smile" also builds upon that original description of the mask grinning and lying. Also it accents the duality in line 4 that starts with torn hearts and ends with a smile.
But here's a question: do we know for sure who the "we" is referring to by the end of line 4? We know the historical background of the poem and the poet but the speaker isn't listing any specifics. What's the effect of that? Besides it being more universal, is there something else going on here?
If you answered yes—or even "I think so"—then be sure to check out our "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section for more ideas.And just like the first two lines, we notice that lines 3 and 4 are a perfectly rhymed couplet, once again in iambic tetrameter. This couplet is the second rhyme of the poem: "guile" and "smile." So now we have our two rhymes that make up this rondeau. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on all that.
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
More fancy words: "myriad" means having lots of something, too many to count even. And "subtleties" simply refer to things that come across as subtle, gentle, less obvious.
The word "mouth" is not the thing you eat with, but rather is being used here as a verb, like talk.
But what's it all mean? It looks like the speaker is getting at all of the polite formalities that were common in the nineteenth century for black Americans, especially those used to address white people in conversation.
Remember, this poem was written way before the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, so things were pretty racist back then and dangerous for black Americans if they didn't use these "subtleties."
Also, by using the word "mouth" instead of "talk," the speaker conveys the feeling that there's something mechanical about these "subtleties," maybe even less than human.
What about the mood behind line 5? Is there something vacant, dull, even lifeless about it? If so, how does this line in particular contribute to the overall feeling and themes of the poem? Check out our "Themes" section for some ideas.
On the technical side of things, the meter in line 5 is still in iambic tetrameter, considering that the word "myriad" is pronounced here in two syllables rather than three. And the rhyme fits with lines 1 and 2, even though "subtleties" sounds slightly different (a long E sound as opposed to the long I of "lies" or "eyes").
We have some alliteration here, too. "Mouth" and "myriad" both begin with the same M sound, which helps emphasize and maintain that swinging iambic pattern we hear so distinctly. (Check out "Sound Check" for more on that.)