Winter: My Secret

Overview
A playful Rossetti teases us with the idea of an interest bit of personal gossip – sort of like that game ‘I love somebody, won’t tell who’, but with a bit more of a mystery to unravel. Anyway, her secret is hinted at through her pathetic fallacy and an evaluation of her attitude to each season – as I see it she is again talking about being terrified of being hurt by exposing herself to earthly love and thus shuts herself off and focuses elsewhere. The secret is that she finds this difficult and really would like to embrace her emotions.

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanzas 1-2Stanzas 3-4

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.

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Composed in 1857 and published in Goblin Markets and Other Poems (there are several similarities between it and Goblin Market that I will hopefully remember to mention).

Quite a bit of the analysis I have read seems to be against the idea that there is anything autobiographical about this poem, but I can only see deep personal expression and frustration which mirrors Rossetti’s  self-denial of pleasure and earthly fulfillment. In 1857 is post second marriage proposal rejection so it could be related to that or just generally to her earthly austerity.

 Themes

The major one here is the idea of lack of self-worth and fear of being emotionally hurt.

Content

Unusually for Rossetti, the opening of this poem is extremely playful and teasing: she’s going to tell us her secret; no she isn’t; oh yes she is; no, no she isn’t!

The second stanza begins in the same way, but by the fourth line it gives way to what I see as her secret. She describes the day as a bitter winter’s day that requires her to wrap up warmly and she reveals that she can’t open her door for fear of draughts  sweeping in and giving her a chill. What is this nonsense? Well, as far as I can see it we have another use of pathetic fallacy and the winter represents a state of self-repression, with the poetic voice choosing to deny herself any chance of love or earthly fulfillment and thus being in a state of perpetual frost.

Although her winter is an unpleasant state she fears if she opens the door to love she will let in draughts, which represent emotional vulnerability and the possibility of getting hurt if she seeks earthly fulfillment. However, we can see that this is a state of denial of her true feelings as she talks about disguising herself in the winter with a ‘veil’ and ‘mask’ that imply that her decision to shut everything out does not represent her true desires.

The second stanza ends with a personal address to an individual that she has a mock conversation with. Although she thinks this individual would not try to hurt her, like the bitter winter weather, she is still uncertain and not trusting enough to expose herself emotionally with this chap, however lovely he seems to be.

This idea is explored further in the third stanza, but this time with another use of seasons and weather. If we associate spring to romance then we see the emotional highs and excitement of love, but, as Rossetti points out, spring is not a reliable season and is subject to change between sun, frost, rain and wind. This shows she is frightened of exposing herself emotionally even if she is filled with the excitement of new romance at the same time.

Finally the poetic voice discusses summer as the most likely season for her to reveal her secret (little did she know that we are able literary detectives and could decipher her metaphors to discover her secret). The imagery of summer here is actually almost the end of summer where fruit is overripe and the birdsong is beginning to die down. I picture the transition into autumn. What does this represent? I see it as describing the stage of someone’s relationship, the next step after the kiddy romantic stage of spring. By the summer of a relationship our poetic voice is more trusting and less swayed by fancy and more by friendship and knowledge of this other person. At this stage she may finally be willing to divulge her secret to the chap: ‘I bloody love ya!’.

Language and techniques

Start with the title. As far as I am concerned winter is her secret and thus the title works as a sentence plus additional description or information after the colon. However, clearly we need to unwrap winter and our poetic voice to understand this secret fully.

Comment of the playful and teasing nature of the first stanza. Rossetti uses rhetorical questions to suggest first that she is going to reveal her secret. The way these are structured indicates that she thinks the particular individual it is being addressed to is desperate to know and she poses the questions for this person. ‘I tell my secret?’ is immediately followed by a refusal to divulge, but then immediately she suggests that ‘perhaps some day’. Thus she is toying with us and her intended audience.

The second stanza opens with more teasing, but I think her suggestion that this may ‘only just my fun’ is intriguing as it implies we might be wasting our time trying to decipher her secret from the poem as it is just a pile of nonsense. However, I don’t think that’s true and I think it is just another element of her playfulness.

It is important that you analyse the significance of the different seasons in the poem. Winter has clear connotations of loneliness, isolation, misery and these are made personal to our poetic voice by the way she clothes herself. She wears ‘a shawl,/A veil, a cloak, and other wraps’ as well as a ‘mask for warmth’ and is clearly braced for the weather as if she is in it for the long haul.

She can clearly cope with the conditions while all wrapped up (although we get an impression of misery through the way she is having to huddle up), but the real issues comes when she opens the door to others. Doors are quite commonly used by Rossetti to represent opportunity or new beginning and here is no exception. If she opens the door she is opening her heart and embracing earthly love again. However, she feels this would be a dangerous risk. As soon as she’d open her mind to this possibility the ‘draughts’ ‘come bounding and surrounding… buffeting, astounding… nipping, clipping’. This reads like an attack and reminds me of Lizzie being assaulted when she attempted to save Laura by getting her some more of the goblin’s fruit in Goblin Market.

Although she may be shutting this door, don’t miss the fact that what she is doing is not really what she wants to do. Rossetti chooses to include a ‘veil’ and a ‘mask’ in the poetic voice’s attire, but do they actually offer much protection against the cold? The answer is no, but they do disguise or shroud our faces. Masks in particular are associated with disguise or hiding who we are and thus when this difficult decision has been made (to shut out earthly temptation) it is made by hiding away her true feeling/her secret feelings.

Although Rossetti plunges her protagonist into perpetual winter, she also shows that this is not actually the case. She talks of spring, which is used to represent the excitement of romance and possibility as an ‘expansive time’, but continues to recognise the danger of emotional exposure in the ‘rainbow-crowned brief showers’. This is a beautiful imagery (I’ve always thought April was the prettiest month with its mix of weather – my birthday may make me a little bias here), but reflects the twin aspects of romance: the beauty and the grandeur vs. the potential for misery indicated by the rain. To emphasise this further she uses imagery of ‘flowers’ that ‘may wither’ showing the inherit danger behind the beauty of the season and the emotion.

The imagery surrounding summer isn’t quite so beautiful and is actually filled with imperfections. A ‘languid summer day’ suggests laziness and sloth, while ‘drowsy birds’ and fruit ‘ripening to excess’ actually creates a picture of summer that is not as magical or beautiful as spring. However, these are used to represent a more experienced relationship and one based on knowledge and understanding rather than beauty, romance and passion. Thus if she ever reached this point of friendship with someone then she would feel more comfortable and relaxed revealing her secret.

Structure

The main things here are to comment on the use of rhetorical questions and then mischievous self-answers that allow her to tease the subject of this poem. This immediately suggests this poem and the secret are something playful and related to an addressed individual. Unusually for Rossetti she is not moaning about her self-denial, but instead trying to make it clear why she has chosen this state and to show a chink in her armour: friendship.

You could also talk about the disorder of the stanzas. You’ll notice immediately the irregularity of length, both in terms of lines and syllables, but also the rhyme scheme changes for each stanza. Stanza 1 – ABBACC; 2 – ABACBDDBEEBFFFGG; 3 – AABBB; 4 – ABBCCAB. In my opinion this shows the disorder in her mind and how uncertain she is about wanting to wrap herself up and away from emotional exposure: her secret.

Tone

I think on the whole this is playful. Even when she is comparing her existence to winter the tone and pace of the poem are upbeat. In my opinion this is because she is trying to tell us that she secretly doesn’t want to cower to the winter, but wants to break free and enjoy the spring/summer of love. You can see this bounce and pace particularly in the second stanza where she uses one mega sentence from lines 4-12 and also in the internally rhyming lines describing the intensity of the draught’s attack.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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