The Mask

Table of contents

1. The Maska

I have a smiling face, she said,
I have a jest for all I meet,
I have a garland for my head
And all its flowers are sweet,—
And so you call me gay, she said.
Grief taught to me this smile, she said,
And Wrong did teach this jesting bold.
These flowers were plucked from garden-bed
While a death-chime was tolled.
And what now will you say?—she said.
Behind no prison-grate, she said
Which slurs the sunshine half a mile,
Live captives so uncomforted,
As souls behind a smile.
God's pity let us pray, she said.
I know my face is bright, she said,—
Such brightness dying suns diffuse.
I bear upon my forehead shed
The sign of what I lose,—
The ending of my day, she said.
If I dared leave this smile, she said,
And take a moan upon my mouth,
And tie a cypress23 round my head,
And let my tears run smooth,—
It were the happier way, she said.
And since that must not be, she said,
I fain27 your bitter world would leave.
How calmly, calmly, smile the Dead,
Who do not, therefore, grieve!
The yea of Heaven is yea, she said.
But in your bitter world, she said,
Face joy’s a costly mask to wear.
’Tis bought with pangs long nourished,
And rounded to despair.
Grief’s earnest makes life’s play, she said.
Ye weep for those who weep? she said—
Ah fools! I bid you pass them by.
Go, weep for those whose hearts have bled,
What time their eyes were dry.39
Whom sadder can I say? she said.

2. Note on the text

The dates in manuscripts indicate that this poem was probably drafted in 1844, possibly when EBB was assembling works for her Poems (1844), although it was not included in that collection. Leighton (1992, p. 76) notes the prevalence of the mask metaphor in poems by L.E.L.b and Victorian women poets generally.

3. Explanatory Notes

Entitled variously in ms, “A Song”; “Not Gay. 1844 A Song”; “A Mask—1845—”; and “A Mask” (see R D515-518). A heavily worked-over draft, one of two ms versions in the “Poems and Sonnets” notebook at Yale (R D1417), indicates the intensive revision entailed in this poem’s composition (especially in the case of the compressed metaphors in Stanza 3). A subsequent fair copy, dated 1845 (R D517), lacks Stanza 7.

cypress tree traditionally associated with death.

fain gladly, willingly.

Cf. EBB’s sonnet “Grief.”

L.E.L. Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-38). See “L.E.L.’s Last Question.” Cf. in particular, Landon's “The Mask of Gaiety” (1837), and also Christina Rossetti’s “L.E.L.” (1863) with an epigraph from EBB.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: JULY 18, 2009
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