Is “We Wear the Mask” a Rondeau? A Deep Dive into Poe’s Formative Poem

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” is a poignant and powerful poem that explores the complex and often hidden realities of Black life in America during the Jim Crow era. This work, rife with symbolism and powerful imagery, has been analyzed and debated by literary critics for over a century. One aspect of the poem that often sparks discussion is its form, specifically its relationship to the rondeau, a strict French poetic form.

While the poem shares some similarities with the rondeau, it’s crucial to understand that it’s not a strict example of the form. The poem’s form, and its deviations from traditional rondeau structure, add another layer of meaning to Dunbar’s message. Understanding the nuances of “We Wear the Mask”‘s form allows us to delve deeper into the poem’s themes and appreciate Dunbar’s artistic brilliance.

The Rondeau: A Complex and Delicate Form

The rondeau, originating in 13th-century France, is a strict and intricate poetic form. It is characterized by its specific rhyme scheme, stanzaic structure, and the repetition of a refrain. The rondeau consists of 13 lines with a strict rhyme scheme: AABBAAABBAAABA. The first line of the poem, the refrain, appears twice more within the poem, once at the end of the eighth line and again as the final line.

Furthermore, the rondeau often follows a thematic pattern. The first half of the poem typically introduces the theme, while the second half delves deeper into the subject matter. The refrain serves as a connecting thread, weaving the different parts of the poem together and emphasizing the central idea.

“We Wear the Mask”: A Dance Between Form and Freedom

While Dunbar’s poem seems to follow the basic structure of the rondeau, with its 13 lines, AABBAAABBAAABA rhyme scheme, and the repeating refrain, it deviates from the form in several key ways. The poem’s refrain, “We wear the mask,” appears not just three times, but four. The final line, “But oh, the weary, weary mask!” adds an extra line that amplifies the poem’s emotional weight and breaks the typical rondeau structure.

Dunbar’s choice to add this extra line is not a mere stylistic flourish. It highlights the relentless pressure and burden of constantly wearing the mask, further emphasizing the theme of hidden pain and suffering. The repetition of the refrain serves as a powerful reminder of the constant need to conceal true feelings, a sentiment that reverberates throughout the entire poem.

The Power of Deviation: Unveiling the Truth

The fact that “We Wear the Mask” is not a perfect rondeau is crucial to its impact. It speaks to the limitations of the form itself, which, despite its strictness, cannot fully capture the complex and nuanced realities of Black life in America. Dunbar’s poem, by breaking the traditional mold, transcends the limitations of the rondeau, allowing him to express the emotional turmoil and deep-seated frustration of the Black community in a more powerful and impactful way.

The poem’s deviations from the traditional rondeau structure serve to emphasize the inherent dissonance between the outward appearance and the inner reality, much like the experience of Black individuals who must mask their true feelings and thoughts to survive in a racially prejudiced society. Dunbar, through his subtle manipulation of form, allows the reader to experience the emotional toll of wearing the mask, unveiling the truth behind the facade.

A Lasting Legacy: The Enduring Influence of “We Wear the Mask”

While “We Wear the Mask” is not a perfect rondeau, it stands as a powerful example of a poem that uses form as a tool to enhance meaning. Dunbar’s subtle manipulation of the rondeau, his addition of an extra line, and his skillful use of the refrain, all serve to amplify the poem’s message.

“We Wear the Mask” remains relevant today, offering insights into the enduring struggle of racial injustice and the persistent need to address the hidden pain and suffering within marginalized communities. This poem, with its complex relationship to the rondeau, stands as a testament to Dunbar’s mastery of poetic form and his ability to use it as a powerful tool to convey complex social and emotional realities.

In conclusion, while “We Wear the Mask” may not perfectly adhere to the traditional rondeau form, its deviations from the form contribute significantly to the poem’s overall impact and meaning. This subtle manipulation of structure allows Dunbar to effectively express the complex realities of Black life in America, making “We Wear the Mask” a timeless and enduring work of art.


1. What is a rondeau?

A rondeau is a poetic form with a strict rhyme scheme and structure. It originated in France during the Middle Ages and gained popularity in England during the Renaissance. A rondeau consists of 13 lines with a specific rhyme pattern: AABBA AABBA AAB. The first line of the poem is repeated as the eighth and thirteenth lines, and the second line is repeated as the ninth line.

This repetition emphasizes key themes and creates a sense of closure. The rondeau’s structure, with its intricate rhyme scheme and recurring lines, allows for the exploration of complex emotions and ideas within a concise form.

2. Why is “We Wear the Mask” considered a rondeau?

While “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar doesn’t follow the traditional rondeau rhyme scheme, it adheres to the form’s overall structure. The poem comprises 13 lines, and the first line (“We wear the mask that grins and lies”) reappears as the eighth and thirteenth lines. The second line (“It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes”) appears as the ninth line.

Dunbar’s departure from the traditional rhyme scheme allows for greater flexibility in exploring the themes of oppression and social conformity. His use of the rondeau form, even with a modified structure, demonstrates his skillful command of poetry and his commitment to the traditions of literary form.

3. What are the key themes in “We Wear the Mask”?

“We Wear the Mask” explores themes of oppression, social conformity, and the struggle for identity in the face of adversity. The poem speaks to the lived experiences of Black Americans during a time of segregation and racial discrimination. The “mask” represents the forced facade of happiness and acceptance, concealing the pain and anguish of systemic racism.

The poem emphasizes the internal conflict between outward appearances and true feelings. It also speaks to the resilience and strength of those who endure oppression, showcasing their ability to maintain a semblance of dignity despite the challenges they face.

4. How does the rondeau structure enhance the poem’s themes?

The rondeau’s repeating lines in “We Wear the Mask” serve to amplify the central theme of masking. The refrain “We wear the mask” emphasizes the pervasive nature of forced conformity and the constant need to hide true emotions.

Furthermore, the rondeau’s strict structure creates a sense of confinement and constraint, mirroring the experience of oppression and the limitations imposed on Black Americans. The rigid framework of the rondeau serves as a powerful metaphor for the social and racial constraints faced by those forced to wear a mask.

5. What are some examples of other rondeaus?

The rondeau form has been employed by numerous poets throughout history. Some notable examples include:

  • “A Rondeau” by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • “Rondeau” by John Skelton
  • “Rondeau” by Charles d’Orléans

These examples showcase the diverse ways in which poets have utilized the rondeau form, from exploring themes of love and courtly tradition to capturing the intricacies of human emotions and experiences.

6. How does “We Wear the Mask” differ from a traditional rondeau?

“We Wear the Mask” deviates from the traditional rondeau rhyme scheme, utilizing a different pattern throughout the poem. Dunbar uses a more flexible approach to rhyme, allowing him to express his ideas more freely.

While the poem follows the structure of repeating lines, Dunbar’s departure from the traditional rhyme scheme highlights his willingness to challenge conventions and create a unique voice within the context of the rondeau form.

7. What is the significance of “We Wear the Mask” in literature?

“We Wear the Mask” is considered a landmark poem in African American literature. It offers a powerful and poignant critique of racism and societal expectations, highlighting the resilience and strength of those who endure oppression.

The poem’s enduring impact stems from its universal themes and its ability to resonate across generations. It serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of acknowledging and addressing the complexities of identity and the struggles faced by marginalized communities.

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