Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Poetry

Dinah Roe

Winter: My Secret (Analysis Part 2) Poetry Workshop

If I had to choose one poem that captures the spirit of Rossetti, it would be this one. A study in contradiction, ‘Winter: My Secret’ is simultaneously withholding and revealing; earnest and teasing; spontaneous and scheming; sincere and ironic, just like the great poet who made it. Here it is again. (The analysis continues after the poem).

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‘Winter: My Secret’ (Analysis Part 1) Poetry Workshop

Winter: My Secret
(by Christina Rossetti) 

I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you’re too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.

Or, after all, perhaps there’s none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.
Today’s a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro’ my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro’ my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
You would not peck? I thank you for good will,
Believe, but leave the truth untested still.

Spring’s an expansive time: yet I don’t trust
March with its peck of dust,
Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,
Nor even May, whose flowers
One frost may wither thro’ the sunless hours.

Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there’s not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.

Poetry Analysis: Getting Started

As Maria Von Trapp might remind us, we should start at the very beginning, because it is a very good place to start. Some people will tell you that a poem begins with its first line. This is not, generally speaking, true. A poem begins with its title. ‘But what about untitled poems?’ I hear the swot at the back objecting. To which I reply, a poet’s decision NOT to include a title is still an omission worth thinking about.

Christina Rossetti and Titles: Not a Love Story
In the case of today’s poem, we should remind ourselves that Christina Rossetti was not always at her most inspired when making up titles. For instance, the actual title of poem we know as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is ‘A Christmas Carol’, while ‘My heart is like a singing bird’ is rather forgettably called, ‘A Birthday’. Dante Gabriel Rossetti despaired of his sister’s attraction to generic titles; he tactfully suggested that his sister rechristen ‘The Last Hope’ and ‘Anne of Warwick’ as ‘Death’s Chill Between’ and ‘Heart’s Chill Between’ for the poems’ publication in The Athenaeum in 1848.

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‘Winter: My Secret’ (Poetry Analysis) Poetry Workshop: The Poem

After consulting the statistics for this blog, I am delighted to report that my faith in the reading public’s enthusiasm for poetry has been repaid. The most frequently visited entries are my close interpretations of poems. So a big nanny nanny boo boo followed by a hearty nyuk-nyuk to those who discouraged me from starting a blog on the grounds that no one cares about poetry these days. People do care, and I can use google analytics to prove it. A very big thank you to readers who have written in about (or simply quietly enjoyed) close-reading poetry along with me.

In gratitude, my Christmas offering to you is a seasonally appropriate Christina Rossetti poem called ‘Winter: My Secret’. I hope you will join me in reading, thinking about, and delighting in this poem.

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Preraphsrule On LitBits Podcast In Which I Discuss Art, Literature and the Pre-Raphaelites With Most Distinguished Podcasters

The erudite and irreverent folks at LitBits, a podcast billing itself as ‘somewhere between the pub and the seminar room’, recently invited me on to discuss the topic ‘Literature and Art.’ As you’ve probably guessed, I talk at some length about Pre-Raphaelitism. The podcast’s delightful hosts not only made me feel very welcome, they also made me think about art and literature in new ways. And I hope you’ll have the same experience. Click HERE to listen. You can also download this podcast as an MP3. And while you’re on their site, why not listen to them discussing literature ‘from odd and surprising angles’ with a fantastic lineup of guests, including an advertiser, a chef and a poet (among many others)!

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Which Highgate Grave Was Once Owned by Holman Hunt?

During my recent talk on the Rossettis at Highgate Cemetery Chapel, Andrew Yeo (Cemetery guide,  volunteer and IT expert) rescued me from certain technical failure. He also shared with me a Pre-Raphaelite connection to Highgate Cemetery which I’d like to pass on to you. The Blount monument, located on the way up to the Egyptian Avenue, was once owned by original Pre-Raphaelite Brother William Holman Hunt.

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Happy Birthday Emily Dickinson Here's to being deep, concentrated and reckless.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on 10 December, 1830, only five days after Christina Rossetti. But these two poets share more than a birth month. Both poets are known as virtual recluses whose sedate daily routines concealed fierce interior lives. Neglected for much of the twentieth century by academics and literary critics, they retained a loyal readership nonetheless, and were respected among poets. See, for example, Edith Sitwell’s backhanded compliment: ‘Women’s poetry, with the expection of Sappho … Goblin Market and a few deep, concentrated but fearfully incomplete poems of Emily Dickinson, is simply awful ...’.

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‘In An Artist’s Studio’: Analysis Part 1 Poetry Workshop

In An Artist’s Studio
(by Christina Rossetti)

One face looks out from all his canvasses,
    One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
    We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
    A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
    A saint, an angel; – every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
    And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
    Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
    Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

When coming to a poem for the first time, it’s tempting just to plunge in and start reading. The trouble with this approach is that you risk overlooking a major part of the poem: its title. Consider Rossetti’s title here: ‘In An Artist’s Studio.’ Without looking at the poem, what can we immediately gather from the title? Let’s close read it word for word and find out.


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In An Artist’s Studio: Poetry Analysis Poetry Workshop: The Poem

When I was a university freshman (long ago, when mastodons bellowed to each other across primeval swamps), a professor of mine once remarked that people are often afraid of poetry because they haven’t really been taught how to read it. This makes sense to me; unlike the Victorians, we are not bombarded with popular periodicals and annuals containing classic and contemporary poems. We are not taught to recite poetry at school, and rarely do we read it in any great depth. But I don’t want people to be scared of poetry anymore. I want people to love it! And if they can’t love it, then at least I want folks to be able to face it down.

So in order to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I’m going to experiment with a ‘Poetry Workshop’, in which I will closely analyse a Pre-Raphaelite poem.

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Christina Rossetti on the Radio! Thursday 1 Dec, In Our Time, Radio 4

This coming Thursday’s broadcast of ‘In Our Time’ promises to feature ‘the life and work of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti.’ I’m not sure who Melvyn Bragg’s guests will be, but let’s hope they give full credit to her technical skill and sophisticated metaphysics, rather than going down the well-trodden route of dismissing her religious commitment as dogmatic, self-hating and detrimental to her creativity. The blurb mentions that she was ‘best known for her ballads and religious poetry’. I do hope the programme will give full credit to her as a writer of sonnets. In my opinion, there is no superior Victorian master of the form. There is also the matter of Goblin Market, a poem which defies easy classification …

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.