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).
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.
Often when I teach this poem, my students are frustrated by its refusal to divulge the ‘secret’ of its title, and I think we can all sympathise! This is a poem that teases and taunts, promising a revelation that never occurs. The speaker here annoys because she is unreliable and untrustworthy, though if we read the poem closely, we realise this is because she herself is untrusting.
‘I don’t trust’, she tells us in line 23. Her mistrustful personality is reflected not only by what she says but what she wears: ‘my mask’; ‘a shawl’; ‘a veil’; ‘a cloak and other wraps’. Admittedly it is winter, but does a veil really provide that much protection against the cold? And, on a day when pavements are likely to be slippery, does a lady really want to obstruct her vision with a veil and a mask?
Clearly, the speaker has chosen this theatrical apparel as much for its ability to conceal the body as to keep it warm. The verbal strip-tease that occurs in the poem’s longest section lets us imagine what it would be like if she were to ‘ope’ her clothing ‘to everyone who taps’.
Like all good burlesque artists, our speaker knows the value of dragging things out. Yet she is aware that this is a potentially dangerous game. Her teasing is creating hostility and frustration in the reader which, were it expressed, might well vent itself in violence, ‘bounding and surrounding’, ‘buffeting, astounding’ ‘Nipping and clipping’.
These repeated gerunds give this imagined violation a startling, present-tense immediacy, as does the verb ‘peck’, repeated here in imitation of the action itself (‘peck’ ‘pecked’). The imagery is sexual, and not in a good way. ‘Peck’ signifies both the act of striking with a beak and of lightly kissing. This double-meaning helps to explain the speaker’s obscure mistrust of ‘March with its peck [here a noun] of dust’ in the next stanza.
This veiled accusation gets our hackles up. We innocent readers have given the speaker no reason to think we would violate her in this way. The speaker anticipates this response: ‘You would not peck? I thank you for good will.’ She may thank us, but she doesn’t trust us: ‘I … / Believe, but leave the truth untested still.’
The second stanza’s rhyme scheme is a technical tour de force, frustrating the reader’s expectations by scattering the rhymes as if they too are being blown about by the wind they describe. The only ‘scheme’ behind these rhymes is to keep us guessing.
Simple, monosyllabic masculine rhymes lead us to imagine we can find a pattern, or predict the next rhyming word, but this proves impossible. The b rhymes of the first stanza (‘blows snows’) literally blow through lines 18-20 of stanza two: (‘shows’, ‘snows’, ‘blows’). Some rhymes are merely repetitions of the same word ‘all’ (ll. 8, 17) ‘snows’ (3, 19), ‘me’ (ll. 15, 16), ‘day’ (ll. 10, 28).
Line 28 of the final stanza picks up the second stanza’s solitary f rhyme (‘day’), which had been left hanging all the way up in line 10. Even though this might seem to gesture toward some sort of resolution, the speaker is not done playing with us. ‘Perhaps my secret I may say’, she claims, but surely we know by now this is disingenuous.
Ironically, the speaker, who has made such a spectacle of her unreliability, reveals herself to be utterly trustworthy in the end. After all, she let us know where we stood in the poem’s first line: ‘I tell my secret? No indeed, not I’.
Is it her fault if we chose not to believe her?
If you liked this poem, try reading: ‘No, Thank You, John’ and ‘He and She’.