Pre-Raphaelites in The City: ‘Winter: My Secret’ (Analysis Part 1)

Dinah Roe

‘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.

Given Christina Rossetti’s habit of assigning functional titles or foregoing them altogether, it should strike us as significant that she has given this poem quite an interesting title. Bear in mind that Christina originally entitled this poem ‘Nonsense’. I wonder, can we detect Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s more dramatically inclined editorial hand at work in the revised title, ‘Winter: My Secret’? Already, we are intrigued. Where ‘Nonsense’ prepares us to dismiss what is to come as trivial, ‘Winter: My Secret’ announces that this poem has serious business with us.

Let’s take the title one word at a time.

TITLE

Winter: This word alerts us that this poem’s subject matter will be seasonal. Will this be a poem about a frozen white landscape? Or will it be a less picturesque exploration of depressing themes often associated with winter, such as aging, death or a heart refusing to warm to a lover’s advances?

:
You might be tempted to jump ahead to the second word, ‘My’, but beware. Disregard the punctuation at your peril! While modern life has trained us to recognise colons only when they have been disfigured as emoticons, in this instance, it pays to think about the function of the colon.

Commonly appearing before a list, a summary, or a quotation, a colon lets us know that what follows it will explain or illustrate the word(s) preceding it. The poet here clearly feels that the word ‘Winter’ requires some elaboration.  It is not sufficient, in and of itself, to stand alone as this poem’s title. Remember that a colon also indicates a pause, in this case, quite a strong one. Pauses are inherently dramatic, making us wait in suspense for what follows.

My Secret
Now we get to the heart of the matter. The notion of a ‘Secret’ arouses our curiosity, alerting us that this will not be the kind of winter poem likely to appear on your local florist’s promotional calendar. Note that this will not just be any old secret; this is a specific person’s secret (‘My’ secret). The use of the word ‘My’ tells us that the speaker of the poem will also be its subject. This poem will be intimate, personal.

But will we really be allowed to get close? Perhaps not. In titles, what follows a colon should help explain or clarify what precedes it. Think, for example, of Tudors: A History of England; or On the Map: Why The World Looks the Way It Does; or Think Dog: The Bestselling Guide to Canine Psychology. Rossetti’s title doesn’t quite work this way. ‘My Secret’ doesn’t really help to explain, illustrate or clarify ‘Winter’; it merely deepens the mystery.

FORM & RHYME SCHEME
Rhyme, rhythm and stanza form in this poem are irregular. The first stanza is comprised of 6 lines; the second of 16; the third of 5; and the final stanza is 7 lines. Its blend of iambic rhythms, from pentameter to tetrameter to trimeter, recalls ‘Goblin Market’, a poem John Ruskin doltishly accused of ‘violating the common ear for metre’. As always, Rossetti is ‘violating’ with intent.

The expression ‘no rhyme or reason’ comes to mind, but of course there is reason, or, as William Michael Rossetti puts it in his note about this poem’s original title: ‘If there is method in some madness, there may be nous in some nonsense’. The scansion is elusive, evasive and complex, and is as difficult to pin down as the ‘secret’ at this poem’s heart. In fact, the form (or lack thereof) enacts the poem’s content.

We’ll look more closely at the ways in which form and rhyme ENACT the themes of this poem in part 2 of our close reading. While pondering the ways in which form and rhyme contribute to the poem’s overall atmosphere of secrecy, consider this: At times, in the manuscript version of this poem, Rossetti is so secretive about the poem’s secret that she doesn’t even write the word ‘Secret’. She replaces it with

< >

 

You can have a look at the manuscript notes HERE.

 

Responses

Respond to this article

There has been a recent problem with comments being wrongly rejected as spam. Hopefully this should now be fixed. Let me know if you have any problems with this still.

Pre-Raphaelites in the City

Subscribe to the blog

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.