Why should the world be overwise, In counting our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask. --Dunbar, "We Wear the Mask" He sang of life, serenely sweet, with, now and then, a deeper note. From some high peak, nigh yet remote, He voiced the world's absorbing beat. He sang of love when earth was young, And love, itself, was in his lays. But ah, the world, it turned to praise A jingle in a broken tongue. --Dunbar, "The Poet"
In these lines we may glimpse the central paradox of Paul Dunbar's poetry. The "We," in "We Wear the Mask," are essentially dissemblers, hiding their "torn and bleeding hearts" behind a "smile." Of course, the "mask" has been lifted for the reader in this poem; our pathos is heightened, however, by our knowledge that such a lapse is temporary, that masked suffering continues: "But let the world dream otherwise / We wear the mask." Readers have generally considered "The Poet" as Dunbar's lament over the critical indifference to his poems written in standard English in relation to the rather dubious popularity of his dialect poetry. In such a reading of the poem, we perceive Dunbar as an artist frustrated with not being taken seriously; we see a poet who feels his most profound work has been ignored while what he considers to be his trivial efforts have been lauded. Further complicating the issue for Dunbar (and contemporary readers as well) is the comic and sentimental characterization of plantation life portrayed in the dialect poetry as opposed to the characteristic melancholy of his standard English poetry. To conceive of Dunbar in this light one must view his motivations as troublesome and paradoxical. How could the author of "We Wear The Mask" and "The Poet" have written nostalgic, pastoral dialect poetry?
On the other hand, I would suggest that "The Poet" can also be read as referring only to the dialect poems. From this perspective, the first two lines--"He sang of life serenely sweet / With, now and then, a deeper note"--both refer to poems written in dialect. The poet laments the world's misinterpretation of these poems, rather than the world's preference for the dialect poetry over his poetry in standard English. Thus, the poem's focus is on the trivialization of the type of self-denial described in "We Wear The Mask." The smile and song of the dialect poet is misinterpreted as "A jingle in a broken tongue," and the poet's distress is unrecognized. The paradox here lies between the necessity for abnegation, expressed in "We Wear the Mask," and the poet's frustration with being misunderstood, detailed in "The Poet." While both of these poems have evoked sympathy in Dunbar's readers, the same cannot be said for Dunbar's dialect poetry, in which, I might add, are poems where the mask is firmly in place.
To support my reading of "The Poet" we should first turn to another standard English poem which seems to address those who find fault with his dialect verse. In "Misapprehension" Dunbar writes:
Out of my heart, one day, I wrote a song, With my heart's blood imb'ued, Instinct with passion, tremulously strong, With grief subdued; Breathing a fortitude Pain-bought. And one who claimed much love for what I wrought, And spoke: "Ay, brother,--it is well writ, But where's the joke?"
In the first half of the poem, Dunbar creates a persona not unlike that of"We Wear The Mask." The poet suppresses suffering, "breathing a fortitude / Painbought." But Dunbar's wry inclusion of the "sympathetic" reader who, apparently, misinterprets the "song" subtly shifts the emphasis from the stoic martyrdom of "We Wear The Mask" to the reader's inability to see the "grief subdued" in this later poem. In contrast to the former poem, Dunbar implies here that readers should see through the "mask."
Still, critics, African-American and white, read the dialect poems in much the same way as the "world" in "The Poet." In other words, critics have tended to place these poems in the Plantation Tradition, which is, in effect, to say that these poems are not all "masked" and to suggest that they exploit, rather than subvert, the stereotypical notions of African-American character and speech that existed in Dunbar's culture. Due in part to a somewhat presumptuous conclusion that Dunbar's use of this medium is capable of only superficial expression, (1) and in part to the unfortunate critical response that followed the publication of his dialect poetry. (2) Dunbar's dialect verse has been viewed as distinct in aim and tone from his poetry written in standard English. I would suggest, however, that if we use poems such as "We Wear the Mask" and "The Poet" as a lens for our reading, we may roil the apparently smooth surface of Dunbar's dialect poetry. We may unlock what Houston Baker calls the "unlikely expressive spaces" in African-American literature that, nevertheless, are charged with "blues energies" (Baker 115).
As I see it, there are at least two ways in which we can consider Dunbar's dialect poetry that differ considerably from the critical responses we have already reviewed. First, we might propose that these poems are subversive, acting against the Plantation Tradition they seemed to mimic. Or, we might acknowledge the sentimentalized idealism that critics have found so disturbing, yet, as contemporary readers, look for gaps in the construction of this "never-never …