Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011

"Masks and Narratives: The Problem of Mask Lyrics" by István D. Rácz

István D. Rácz is a Reader in the Department of British Studies, University of Debrecen. His main field of interest is 19th- and 20th-century British poetry. He has published books and studies on romantic poetry (Blake and Shelley), translation studies and contemporary British poetry, including a monograph on Philip Larkin. He has co-edited a volume on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Currently he is working on a new monograph on Larkin’s poetics. He is director of the Institute of English and American Studies, chairman of the Literary Scholarship Council of the Regional Committee of the Hungarian Academy and editor of Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies. Email:

Dramatic monologues and mask lyrics are both forms of poetry in which dramatization, the construction of masks, and narrativization play equally important roles. In this paper I will focus on the second type, mask lyrics, and attempt to outline what “mask” means in such poetry, as well as how this mask is related to narrativity.

The speaker in a poem should always be carefully distinguished both from the actual poet and the implied poet. Dramatic monologues and mask lyrics are poems in which the speaker is explicitly constructed in the shape of a literary character, who is different from the author as any figure in a piece of fiction is. Furthermore, as opposed to a narrative text, the core of a mask lyric is the character rather than the temporality of a story. In such poems character is the determining constituent of the text; this is the Archimedean point, the only (fictitious) certainty in contrast with the uncertainty of the events narrated. The actual poet may be Protean (or, to use John Keats’ phrase, a “chameleon”), but the character is always peculiar to one particular poem or a sequence.

In an important study published in 1976, Ralph W. Rader made a distinction between dramatic monologues proper and mask lyrics. The most frequently cited examples of the former are Robert Browning’s monologues; of the latter, I will now mention T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” To quote Rader, “the most general difference between the two groups is that the actor-speaker in the second group is not a simulated natural person in contrast with the poet but an artificial person projected from the poet, a mask through which he speaks” (140). I would add that mask lyrics show striking similarities with stream-of-consciousness, whereas dramatic monologues proper are much closer to internal monologues. The typology Rader offers is extremely useful in the close reading of poems. However, since the speaker in the poem is always a verbal construct that is different from the actual poet, labelling a text as a mask lyric or a dramatic monologue depends to a great extent on the reader. Therefore, in this paper I will interpret both terms as figures of reading, and in what follows I will try to show why I find this a fruitful approach to poetry. This is, of course, similar to Paul de Man’s approach to autobiography (70). Nevertheless, I will inevitably refer to authors who discuss mask lyrics and dramatic monologues as a genre in my attempt to outline a possible reading strategy.

Since I use the phrase mask lyric, an attempt to define the term “mask” seems inevitable. First of all, I will interpret this term as a method in constructing a literary character as an actor in a narrative, which is, paradoxically, not narrated. In a story, as Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan suggests, “character is a construct, put together by the reader from various indications dispersed throughout the text” (36). In a poem read as a mask lyric, I suggest, these “indications” are much more in the fore of the text than in a piece of fiction. (The only exception in prose fiction is the stream-of-consciousness novel, which the reader cannot understand without constructing an image of the character by pulling together the fragments of a narrative. This is the main reason why stream-of-consciousness narratives and mask lyrics show obvious similarities.) Rimmon-Kenan also writes that the constructs that we call characters “are by no means human beings in the literal sense of the word, [but] they are partly modelled on the reader’s conception of people and in this they are person-like” (33). This is an attitude that is based on the mimetic level of character construction, which makes it possible for the reader to form the attitude based on both sympathy and judgment when reading the text (see Langbaum 93-108). In other words: we read a poem as if the speaker was a person, while we are also conscious of the poet’s consciousness, as Robert Langbaum suggests (94). In my reading, the consciousness of the reader of any text in which characters are constructed includes the awareness that something is constructed as a part of the text; this “something” is the actor/character/agent in the poem, to mention only a few terms that all refer to different aspects of the same construct. In mask lyrics the poet constructs an actor/character/agent by using the method of the mask. The commonly used metaphor “the poet is wearing a mask” refers to this complicated process rather than to simply covering something that was already there.

George Santayana writes: “Our animal habits are transmuted by conscience into loyalties and duties, and we become ‘persons’ or masks” (qtd. in Goffman, The Presentation 65). Is it the act of creating our own masks that makes us “persons,” that is, human beings? The question itself is highly ambiguous: in a thoroughgoing study, Gordon Allport mentions fifty different meanings of the Latinate words “person” and “persona.” If we define “person” as a social construct, role playing and creating masks should be considered as cultural processes that will result in performing a role as a person. The process can also be seen as identification and the result as the social identity or the ego identity as outlined by Erving Goffman (Stigma 129-30).

Importantly, both Santayana the philosopher and Goffman the social psychologist discuss “human beings in the literal sense of the word,” to use Rimmon-Kenan’s phrasing. A speaker in a poem is not a person, but it is like a person, and ignoring this mimetic level would obviously deprive the reader of a relevant aspect of the meaning. A relevant aspect, but not the only aspect: one should remember that a literary character consists of the words and only the words that refer to it in the text. (Typically, when focusing on this side of character, one uses the pronoun “it” rather than “s/he”.) Consequently, a mask in a poem is not the same as a mask in social existence. The differences between the two are as significant as the identity of the word that we use in reference to them.

Discussing the general features of dramatic monologues and mask lyrics, Glennis Byron points out that in recent literary criticism the major question is how something is created as a text: “The emphasis moves from what is ‘expressed’ to what is constructed, from what the text means to how the text works, from what is represented to ways of representation. It also leads to a consideration of the dramatic monologue [in the wide sense, including mask lyrics] in terms of performance” (26). Following Byron’s point, I suggest that what is performed in the poems we read as mask lyrics is the mask itself.

Mask in poetry has been defined in a number of ways: as a means of creating a more authentic self than the actual social self of the poet (Oscar Wilde), as a manifestation of the anti-I and the target of desire (W. B. Yeats), as a medium of communication with the reader (T. S. Eliot), to mention only a few well-known examples. These are all concepts of textually constructed masks, but none of them is independent from mask as a person, as a cultural construct. The three poets I have mentioned above as examples conceptualized their notions of mask in terms of life (social existence) rather than in reference to pure poetry. Oscar Wilde was interested in how life and art were related to each other and how masks mediated between the two; Yeats reckoned with mask as an actual entity in his intricate system based on occultism; whereas Eliot struggled with his own ambivalent attitude to hide and show himself.

The 19th-century interest in the creation of masks and the poetry based on it is closely linked with the rising tendency to investigate the unconscious. In the 20th century this was followed by a development of both technical devices and cultural techniques affecting the textual construction of masks in literature. In the late 1960s Jonathan Raban wrote: “The tape recorder has made us listen to the way that people speak with a new sensitivity, both dialogue and narrative have been stimulated to a greater accuracy in echoing the exact tones of the spoken word” (12). Thirty-five years later Glennis Byron comments: “The growing familiarity of the public with variations on monologue conventions [e.g. political speeches and alcoholics’ self-revelations] may well have contributed to making the poetic form of the dramatic monologue particularly accessible” (132). Although Byron makes this point as a hypothesis (“may well have contributed”), she draws our attention to the strategy most readers use when understanding a mask lyric or a dramatic monologue: we tend to use non-literary texts as analogies, and we wish to detect the story behind the mask. We want to construct a narrative that is never made explicit, but always hinted at.

To put it another way, we are conscious that appearances are deceptive, and we want to see more than the fictitious character in a fictitious situation does. As Goffman as a social psychologist put it: “In general […] the representation of an activity will vary in some degree from the activity itself and therefore inevitably misrepresent it” (The Presentation 72). Our activity is misrepresented because we use masks in the social games of defending our integrity. William Empson wrote: “The object of life, after all, is not to understand things, but to maintain one’s defences and equilibrium…” (qtd. in Leader 173). Literature, on the one hand, imitates such games of defences; on the other hand, it subverts the models of equilibrium to construct new structures of human intimacy (cf. Nyilasy 53). This latter is particularly important in poetry. The reader of a poem gains insight into and forms judgment of the undermining of such games by perceiving the culture that is performed in the text. To accept an act of revolt, first we need to see the rigid structure it aims at debunking.

A mask in poetry represents both the social games that a poem reconstructs and the act of its subversion. In an earlier study, I defined mask as a principle in the process of identity construction, which creates a temporary, conscious and artificial unity between the implied poet (the internal self) and the actual author (the external self). Unity is constructed, since the real poet transforms himself/herself into a mask (i.e. a different “person”) in the text, while s/he also makes role-playing itself explicit. This unity of the two selves is temporary, since it only exists in one poem or one sequence only; it is conscious, because the poet emphasizes both the identity and the difference of the two selves; and it is artificial in the sense of existing in art (D. Rácz 27-28). Mask is as paradoxical as the reader’s attitude to mask lyrics and dramatic monologues and the complexity of the culture they perform can only be seen through this paradox. As Glennis Byron suggests, such poems are used “to expose the conflicting and multiple positions through which the self can be situated and to emphasize the ways in which this self is produced by various socioeconomic and linguistic systems” (135).

As is well known, mask lyrics and dramatic monologues developed to be central forms in British poetry in the Victorian age; poets used this genre to give evidence of “the illusory nature of the autonomous and unified Romantic subject” (Byron 3). What had been self-controlled became diverse and elusive; what had been static became dynamic. One consequence is that in later poetry, particularly in the post-1945 era, narratives play an increasingly important role even in lyric and dramatic poetry. In their introduction to an anthology of poems, Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison point out that in recent poetry one can notice a renewed interest in narrative; Ian Gregson also mentions “the effects of novelisation” in contemporary verse (qtd. in Crawford and Kinlock 30). In my reading, this tendency is a symptom of constructing dialogicity in poems: by using a narrative (but not necessarily telling a story) the poet constructs his/her other in the form of a mask. I will demonstrate the relevance of mask and narrative with a British and an American poem: Ted Hughes’s “Hawk Roosting” (Lupercal 26) and James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” (Poulin 99-100).

Hughes’s poem has rightfully been referred to as a combination of a beast fable (in the Aesopean tradition) and a dramatic monologue. The power of this text is rooted in its ambivalence. The figure of the hawk can acquire basically two meanings: it stands for itself (and metonymically represents birds of prey), and also becomes a political allegory of dictators in human history. This latter meaning includes the threatening voice of an uninhibited despot such as Hitler or Richard III (Sagar, The Achievement 292); hence the misreading of the poem as an appraisal of totalitarian dictatorship. Hughes comments: “That bird is accused of being a fascist. […] Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature is thinking. Simply Nature. […] I intended some Creator like the Jehovah in Job, but more feminine. […] There is a line in the poem almost verbatim from Job” (qtd. in Sagar, The Art 48). The line that Hughes refers to is stanza 4, line 2: “I kill where I please because it is all mine.” The original version in the Book of Job is: “Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 41.11).

Discussing the fascinating question of the bird’s femininity and the role of its feeding instinct would divert me from the problem I am outlining. Instead, I will try to answer two questions about narration and mask formation in the poem. What is the story in or behind the text? Is there a mask constructed in this poem? As I indicated previously, in my attempt to find (or construct) the answers, I will treat both dramatic monologue and mask lyric as figures of reading rather than clear-cut and well-definable forms.

To answer the first question, we should first of all consider that the grammar of the poem seems to be against the presence of any narrative: temporality is missing. Apart from three verbal predicates, all the finite forms are in the present tense (including the present perfect forms of the last stanza). The exceptions are two past tense forms (“It took the whole of Creation / To produce my foot, my each feather” [stanza 3, ll. 2-3]; “Nothing has changed since I began” [stanza 6, l. 2]) and the colloquial “going to” form referring to the future in the last line. Each sentence (most of them filling only one line) sounds like a divine declaration, pretending to need no justification. The lack of temporality in this poem also means a lack of causality: the declarations are simply juxtaposed, not logically related to one another. The two past tense forms refer to the beginning of creation, and the implication is that the hawk (or Hawk, if one interprets it as a name) was created to enjoy his/her eternal power.

The literal meaning of futurity in the last line reinforces this: the power of the speaker will never be shaken. The colloquial “going to” form, however (not unlike the casual use of “things” and “like this” in the same line), reveal the arrogance of the speaker. This line is so remote from the biblical tone in the rest of the poem that the bird suddenly becomes a grotesque figure, which creates a distance from the implied poet as well as from the reader. But this distance does not mean the feeling of separation and safety: we have every reason to be afraid of a grotesquely arrogant figure. The implied poet does feel this danger: the act of writing is the only narrative that can be discerned in this text, although not made explicit. (In some other poems Hughes makes this more obvious by making the text self-reflexive, such as in “The Thought-Fox”.) Universal threat and universal fear are both inscribed into the poem. Hughes, therefore, was not making an altogether precise comment when stating that it is “simply Nature” that is thinking in this poem. This would be too “simple,” to use his own word. The mask of the poet makes it possible for the reader to have an insight into the position of both aggressor and victim, and also to form a judgment of both.

Before I make it clear what exactly I mean by the poet’s mask in “Hawk Roosting” I wish to briefly compare it with Dickey’s poem. This text invites the reader to understand the title literally: the heaven of animals is a place fulfilling animals’ desires after their death. Some images are strikingly similar to those in Hughes’ poem: the hawk dreams of “perfect kills and eat” (stanza 1, l. 4); Dickey’s predators “hunt, as they have done, / But with claws and teeth grown perfect” (stanza 4, ll. 4-5). The chilling threat of murder brought to perfection is very much in the centre of both poems. Although the two poets situate their actors outside of history (both in a grim parody of God’s eternal kingdom), one cannot help recalling Zyklon B as a “perfect” and efficient way of killing people.

Are these poems about history or a place outside of it? The two texts offer two different answers in my reading. I cannot find any element in Dickey’s poem that would enable me to construct a structure forming the opposite of historical time. Temporality is missing from the text, but the indifferent voice of the extradiegetic speaker makes the deadly menace of aggression even fiercer. In Hughes, as I suggested previously, the first-person diction also creates an image of the victim. Although there is no second-person pronoun in the text, apostrophe is still a central figure of the text. Threatening always has an object, and if this object is not constructed on the level of grammar, this gap makes it universal. To understand our threat, first of all we need to understand the character who threatens us. What we comprehend when reading this text is the actor’s right to kill or refrain from killing as described by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality (136). In other words, we perceive a despot who has placed him/herself outside of history and constructed a divine position.

It should be clear from what I have said so far that the hawk is not the poet’s mask. The author uses it as an agent in a game. The hawk is blinded to historical time, but the implied poet opens the eyes of the reader both to the cruelty of history and the pettiness of the speaker. The author wears the mask of a prophet; this is the relevance of the dialogic relationship that he establishes with the Bible. We have seen that as a poet he interprets the words of God (“Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine”) as the right to kill people (“I kill where I please because it is all mine”), and makes the bird not only speak these words, but also assume the role of God. The poet’s mask is both the mask of a prophet struggling against a false prophet and that of a chronicler who cannot see the end of a narrative. Creation, the beginning of human history is mentioned in the text, but the end of history, the apocalypse revealing and establishing the eternal kingdom of God is missing. It will not happen in the vision of the poem; what is going to happen only exists in the bird’s imagination. With this suggestion, the prophet has finished his narrative and his mission. The mask could be removed.

But it cannot be removed: not unlike in social existence, the mask (the person speaking about the bird) proves to be the only reality. It follows that “Hawk Roosting” is not only the combination of a beast fable and a dramatic monologue, as I suggested previously. The mask of the poet gives it another dimension, and this mask constructs the image of the bird. The speech act of the poem can best be described with the term prosopopeia. As Paul de Man explains, the etymology of this trope’s name is “prosopon poien, to confer a mask or a face” (76); in other words, to create a face that was originally not there. Two faces are constructed in Hughes’s poem: that of the bird and that of the chronicler who writes the poem.

Ted Hughes concludes another poem, “The Thought-Fox,” with the line “The page is printed” (Poetry in the Making 20). In my reading, the silent last line of “Hawk Roosting” is “The masks are made.” They cannot be removed, since they are parts of the world.


Works Cited

  • Byron, Glennis. Dramatic Monologue. New Critical Idiom ser. London: Routledge, 2003.
    Crawford, Robert and David Kinloch, ed. Reading Douglas Dunn. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1992.
  • De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.
  • D. Rácz, István. Költők és maszkok. Identitáskereső versek az 1945 utáni brit költészetben. Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 1996.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. I. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Goffman, Erving. Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • —-. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Hughes, Ted. Lupercal. London: Faber, 1980.
  • —-. Poetry in the Making. London: Faber, 1969.
  • Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.
  • Leader, Zachary, ed. The Movement Reconsidered. Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie, and Their Contemporaries. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
  • Nyilasy, Balázs. “A szó társadalmi lelke”. N.p.: Cserépfalvi, 1996.
  • Poulin, A., Jr., ed. Contemporary American Poetry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
  • Raban, Jonathan. The Technique of Modern Fiction. London: Edward Arnold, 1968.
  • Rader, Ralph W. “The Dramatic Monologue and Related Lyric Forms.” Critical Inquiry 3 (1976): 131-51.
  • Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983.
  • Sagar, Keith, ed. The Achievement of Ted Hughes. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1983.
  • —-. The Art of Ted Hughes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975.