The greatest poems about keeping things hidden selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Great poetry should not be a secret, although there is something nice about serendipitously stumbling upon a hidden gem of a poem. The following great poems shouldn’t be secrets, but they are about a secret, or something being kept secret.
William Blake, ‘Never Seek to Tell Thy Love’. This untitled poem, written in around 1793, would have to wait 70 years to see publication, when the Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti included it in his edition of Blake’s poems in 1863. The poem suggests that sometimes it’s best not to confess one’s love but to keep it secret. In one manuscript version of the poem, the first line actually reads ‘Never pain to tell thy love’, but many subsequent editors have altered ‘pain’ to ‘seek’.
John Clare, ‘The Secret’. This poem by an often-overlooked voice in Romantic poetry, John Clare (1793-1864), strikes to the heart of what many of us have felt at some time in our lives: having kept his love of somebody a secret, the poet is doomed to transfer or deflect that love onto other people who remind him of his first, true love. Not so much a lost love as a love never had, this one – but poignant and affecting nevertheless.
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Reticent Volcano Keeps’. ‘The reticent volcano keeps / His never slumbering plan’. The volcano lies dormant, vouchsafing its plans to nobody, and humans must dwell in uncertainty as to when it will next erupt and potentially destroy their homes and lives. Similarly, we don’t know what happens when we die: the dead have remained silent about that. Dickinson ends this enigmatic poem with the statement: ‘The only secret people keep / Is Immortality.’
Christina Rossetti, ‘Winter: My Secret’. Rossetti originally gave ‘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? Our analysis of the poem, included in the link above, attempts to get to the bottom of the poem’s caginess.
A. E. Housman, ‘Because I Liked You Better’. Although this great poem about unrequited love does not explicitly mention a secret, in a sense it is all about a secret: the speaker of the poem promises to ‘forget’ the one he has feelings for, because his affection is not returned, but when he says he ‘kept his word’, we know that he really kept a secret (the secret of his love). What’s more, the poem remained a secret: the man who inspired it, Moses Jackson, whom Housman met at university and hopelessly loved for the rest of his life, never read it, and Housman never published it during his lifetime. It appeared posthumously in 1936.
W. B. Yeats, ‘The Secret Rose’. Taken from Yeats’s early collection The Wind among the Reeds (1899), ‘The Secret Rose’, which begins ‘Far off, most secret, and inviolate Rose’, is about the poet’s desire for the ‘Secret Rose’ – associated with Christianity – to enfold him with its perfection, beauty, and goodness.
Lola Ridge, ‘Secrets’. Lola Ridge (1873-1941) is not much-remembered now, but she was one of a number of female modernist poets active in the first half of the twentieth century: poets who helped to move poetry away from roses and iambic pentameters and into fresh new territory. In this poem, Ridge ponders those ‘Secrets, / running over my soul without sound’, which infest her half-sleep…
Robert Frost, ‘The Secret Sits’. This two-line poem doesn’t tell us what the ‘Secret’ is, but this couplet seems to be about what we call, in the popular idiom, the ‘elephant in the room’: we may carry on as though it isn’t there, but all the time the Secret ‘sits’ in the middle of the room.
Anonymous, ‘The Secret’. This poem appeared in The Golden Book of Poetry (1947), where its author was listed as that prolific writer, ‘Anonymous’. Reminiscent of children’s rhymes such as those written by Robert Louis Stevenson in his A Child’s Garden of Verses, ‘The Secret’ is about a secret kept between the speaker and two others, a robin and a cherry-tree: ‘We have a secret, just we three, / The robin, and I, and the sweet cherry-tree’. The speaker enigmatically worries that when the bird leaves the nest, the secret will be out…
Denise Levertov, ‘The Secret’. This beautiful poem is about literary interpretation and the ‘meaning’ of poetry itself. Who creates the meaning? Levertov describes how readers of her poetry come to her to announce they have discovered the ‘secret’ of one of her poems – a secret Levertov didn’t even realise she’d been keeping. The joy of reading, Levertov’s poem suggests, is that we are always discovering new meanings in the things we read – even meanings that remained a secret to the writer…
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.
Images: Emily Dickinson (top), and Lola Ridge (bottom), via Wikimedia Commons.