Literature

A Short Analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’

A summary of Rossetti’s poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) originally gave her poem ‘Winter: My Secret’ the rather less appealing title ‘Nonsense’. She renamed it with its more exciting title when it was published in Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862. The new title immediately piques our interest. ‘Winter: My Secret’. But what secret? In this post, we offer some notes towards a summary and analysis of Rossetti’s poem.

Winter: My Secret

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.

Oh okay. So Rossetti’s speaker isn’t going to divulge her secret after all. A brief summary of ‘Winter: My Secret’ might run as follows: the poem’s speaker, seemingly in response to a request to divulge her secret, says that she won’t tell it, but perhaps one day she will. It’s too cold for such things (it is winter, after all, as the title tells us), but she continues to refuse. There may not even be a secret for her to tell. Is she playing with us? She wants to keep us guessing.

She reiterates that it’s too cold, the weather ‘nipping’ and ‘biting’, and the speaker would rather keep her veil on and her face covered, rather than remove it and tell her secret. Perhaps when spring comes and it’s warmer she will then tell Winter scene 2us her secret – but then, she’s not sure she trusts spring weather either, since there are April showers and frosts in May can destroy the flowers quickly. Perhaps in the summer, then? Maybe then she might reveal her secret, or we (or the anonymous addressee of the poem) may guess what it is.

So much for a summary of the poem; but what is ‘Winter: My Secret’ about? How should we go about interpreting Rossetti’s poem? Many of Rossetti’s poems seem in love with the sounds of words, with the rhyming and chiming and singsong dance of language, but ‘Winter: My Secret’ is excessive even by Rossetti’s standards.

We think that ‘Winter: My Secret’ is about the slipperiness of language itself: reality might be a case of smoke and mirrors, of created illusions and verbal jiggery-pokery, just as the speaker may not even have a secret to confide – as she herself suggests to us:

Or, after all, perhaps there’s none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.

And ‘Winter: My Secret’ is full of such sleight-of-hand with language, such lexical legerdemain: ‘who ever shows / His nose to Russian snows’ seems to be taking a little too much delight in the ‘o’ sounds of the words. And in the lines

Spring’s an expansive time: yet I don’t trust
March with its peck of dust

We may have to do a double-take and check we’ve read that right: its peck of dust, not speck of dust, though a speck might be what we were expecting. But because of the ‘its’ that precedes ‘peck’, we almost hear ‘its peck’ as ‘its peck’ anyway. It’s not just the speaker, but language itself, which cannot be trusted, it would seem.

Yet for all that, the speaker is teasing us. She says she would rather keep her veil on rather than remove it and tell her secret because it’s winter and the weather is cold, yet she is still managing to communicate with us with her veil on. If she can speak to us and be understood, she can tell her secret. In other words, she is making excuses. Is the speaker of this poem sound of mind? Or is she merely capricious?

‘Winter: My Secret’ is a baffling bit of poetry, and we can see why Rossetti thought ‘Nonsense’ a fitting title for it. Yet closer analysis of the poem reveals that its linguistic tricks and features harbour more secrets and surprises than might first be apparent.

About Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Many of her poems engage with the question of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).

Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative poem which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.

Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: the Penguin edition of her Complete Poems runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover.

Rossetti died in 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.

Discover more about Rossetti’s poetry with our discussion of her classic narrative poem Goblin Market, our thoughts on her little-known poem ‘Twice’, and her wintry classic, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.