Winter: My Secret
What are the connotations of the words:WinterSecret
Read the Poem
Howdoes this poem meetthe associations you made with the two words?Describehow the poem links the idea of secrets to the idea of winter.
A female speaker (determined by the female clothing she alludes to) is addressing an auditor who has asked her to tell her ‘secret'. She refuses on the grounds that the day is too cold, that perhaps there is nothing to tell and that she does not want to reveal herself, just as she does not want to be exposed to the cold.The speaker does not trust the assurances of the auditor that it will be alright, explaining that she is cautious even as springtime progresses. She may open up in the warmth of summer but otherwise the auditor will have to guess the secret.
Rossetti composed Winter: My Secret in 1857 and first published among the non-devotional poetry in her first volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems.The ‘secret' to which the title refers is not specified in the poem. The teasing tone of the speaker as she threatens to reveal a secret and then decides to keep it concealed from the reader has puzzled readers and critics since the poem's first publication.
Various theories have arisen as to what the secret refers:Some critics perform a biographical reading of the poemandargue that the secret to which the poem refers is concerned with Rossetti's own relationships with men. These theories often rely on unsubstantial evidence and ignore the complex linguistic details of thepoem.Other critics, more fruitfully, have understood the poem to offer a commentary on the power of art, language, play and poeticpractice.In an article exploring Rossetti's engagement with theTractariandoctrine ofReserve, criticEmma Mason has argued that the narrator of the poem can be associated with God himself, declaring to the believer that he may have secrets that are yet to be revealed.
Investigating Winter: My secret
What difficulties could potentially arise from reading the poem in a purely biographical context?What suggestions can you find which could be seen to identify the speaker as God?What are the difficulties with this interpretation?
Language and tone
PossessivenessThroughout Winter: My Secret, the speaker refers to her secret as something which she holds in her possession. She suggests that it is her property and therefore, it is solely up to her who she reveals it to.QuestioningRather than directly list the questions of the curious observer or listener as inUp-hill,in Winter: My Secret, the speaker echoes the (assumed) questions within her responses in l.1, 2, 5 and21.Defending her decision to remain in possession of her secret, she uses these responses as the springboard for further reflection on the issue and a way of conveying her own personal wishes.
Investigating language and toneApart from clothing, does anything else convey the gender of the speaker?Read aloud the line, ‘Only, my secret's mine and I won't tell' (line 6) several times and describe the tone in which you think that it is spokenWhat message does this tone convey?
Structure and versificationRhymeMuch of the rhyme scheme of Winter: My Secret is constituted of couplets, triplets, with occasional alternate rhyming words. The couplets and triplets serve to increase the pace at which the poem is read. This, in turn, heightens the sense of passion with which the speaker expresses her feelings. For instance, the rhyming of the words ‘shows', ‘snows' and ‘blows' on adjoining lines (lines 18, 19, 20) conveys the speed at which the speaker wishes to hide her secret away. The words also convey the notion that the enquirer's persistent curiosity will not be easily quenched.
Internal rhymeInternal rhyme is rhyme which occurs within a single line of verse, rather than between lines. It is a feature which occurs repeatedly throughout Winter: My Secret.Writing that ‘today', ‘it froze and blows and snows', (line 3), the manifestations of cold weather are joined together through rhyme. This emphasises the role of winter in making the speaker want to wrap herself up for protection. By placing the words ‘today' and ‘froze' alongside one another, she draws attention to the movement ‘to and ‘fro' between the speaker and the listener and between reticence and revelation.Later in the poem, Rossetti uses internal rhyme to create a sense of fast movement when she joins the words ‘bounding', ‘surrounding' and ‘astounding' (lines 15-16). She also uses it to emphasize the persistence of the ‘nipping' and ‘clipping' (line 17) effects of the winter wind.
MetreThe metre throughout the poem is largely iambic reflecting the conversational expression of feeling as the speaker strives to hide behind a protective mask. Throughout, the use of iambic feet ensures that the rhyming sounds are always stressed. For instance, in the line, ‘His nose to Russian snows' (line 19), the ‘s' sound is stressed to highlight the persistence of the snowy weather.By structuring the first verse around an iambic rhythm, Rossetti ensures that the repeated word ‘tell' is stressed in addition to the exclamation ‘well' (lines 1, 6, 5). By placing the metric stress on these words, she highlights the way in which the speaker teases the listener by asking whether or not it would be wise to reveal her secret. Likewise, the word ‘all' is repeated at the start of the second verse (lines 7, 8) to emphasise the encompassing nature of the secret.The occasional inversion of feet (l.6, 23, 24), or use of dactyls and anapaests (l.17, 20) within the iambic rhythm, reflect a conversational style which varies as emotions change and passion rises and falls. For instance, by usingenjambementin the third verse and placing the word ‘March' at the start of a line, Rossetti both highlights the overflowing nature of the speaker's thoughts and links the month of ‘March' to the month of ‘April' which is given an initial stress on the following line.
Punctuation:Winter: My Secret is unusual in the sense that it is full of punctuation marks which affect the speed, tone and rhythm with which the poem is read.Question marks indicate the curiosity of the listener as well as the teasing nature of the speaker. For instance, she begins with the question, ‘I tell my secret?' (line 1). Instead of being a direct question, the phrase challenges the listener to perceive things from her perspective as she voices her thoughts aloud, seeming to weigh up whether or not it would be appropriate to remove her mask of reticenceThe colon in the title, Winter: My Secret, introduces both the divide and the correlation between the season and the evasiveness of the speaker. Throughout the poem, colons and semi-colons are used to create caesurae which introduce a note of hesitancy. They are also used as an expression of the teasing voice of the speaker as she indicates disclosure of her secret, before withdrawing herself. The colon which ends the promising line, ‘You want to hear it? well:' introduces the idea that something significant is about to be declared. Thus, it works to enhance the auditor's disappointment, anticipated by the speaker as she moves onto claims that the secret is hers to keep.
Investigating structure and versificationNote down all the rhymes that you can find in the poemWhat is the effect of linking certain words together through rhyme?What effects are created by the use of internal rhyme?How does the punctuation work to change the tone of the speaker?Give specific examples.
Imagery and symbolismWinter, photo by DomenicoSalvagnin, available through CreativeCommensWinter- The poem presents winter as a dangerous season. To avoid the biting winds and the draughts that cannot be excluded, the speaker must wrap herself securely in a ‘shawl, / A veil, a cloak' (lines 11-12). Otherwise, she suggests that the snow and the wind have the potential to envelop and freeze the life out of her.The speaker suggests that anyone who ‘ever shows / His nose to Russian snows' (lines 18-19) opens himself up to being ‘pecked at' by the wind and the cold rendering him numb and frozen. Russia is a country renowned for its cold winters.
More on Russian winters: The whole of northern Russia is within the Arctic Circle and parts of the year experience Arctic temperatures. The harsh Russian winters have helped to defeat invaders such as Napoleon. In 1812, he sent his armies into Russia in an attempt to invade. Many died because of the freezing conditions. As a result, he had to withdraw his troops from the country.More on intertextuality - A Better Resurrection: In Rossetti's poem, A Better Resurrection (also written in 1857 and included in Goblin Market and Other Poems, see Poems for study > A Better Resurrection) the speaker compares her life to a ‘frozen thing' (line 13) and laments the lack of greenness surrounding her. Following this, she likens the resurrection of Christ to the ‘sap of spring' (line 15) that brings new life. Just as she cannot glimpse the coming of spring whilst living in the midst of winter, neither, she suggests, can she glimpse Christ whilst caught up in a state of spiritual numbness. As in Winter: My Secret, winter is seen to be a time of concealment and trial.
Spring - The speaker describes spring as ‘an expansive time' (line 23) in view of the expansion and abundance of natural phenomena at this time. With flowers blossoming, fruit ripening and animals giving birth, spring is considered as a period of new life. However, the speaker voices her distrust in the season. Recognising the transient and fleeting nature of spring, she realises that it can't be relied upon:March with its peck of dust,Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,Nor even May, whose flowersOne frost may wither thro' the sunless hours. (lines 24-27)The fact that flowers, which have the potential to bring joy in May, can wither after just one frost points to the notion that the pleasures derived from nature can be short-lived. The speaker suggests that the peck of the cold wind is to be preferred to the ‘peck of dust' that March brings, since it motivates a person to action, protecting herself from negative influences.
Summer - The speaker describes summer as a ‘languid' timeWhen drowsy birds sing less and less,And golden fruit is ripening to excess. (28-30)In view of the lethargy that the summer weather gives rise to, she suggests that the season is the one in which her secret is most likely to be revealed. Without the need for ‘a veil, a cloak and other wraps' (line 12), she is not protected as she might be and therefore, stands in danger of revealing more than previously.Throughout her poetry, Rossetti associates the singing of birds with divine inspiration and joy. With this in mind, the diminishment of the bird songs in Winter: My Secret can be associated with the lack of divine inspiration, natural activity and pure expression.
Eating as a form of attack – The speaker's sense of being under attack from the curiosity of others is conveyed through a series of words which suggest animals of prey, such as dogs ‘nipping', ‘biting', ‘bounding' and ‘buffeting' her, then birds by which she is ‘pecked at'.Clothing and disguise - Whilst veils, cloaks and wraps (line 12) may protect the speaker from the fierce and biting winds of the winter season, they also serve to hide her from curious onlookers who seek to find out her secret. Suggesting that she wears her ‘mask for warmth' (line 18), the speaker indicates that it is, for her, a form of comfort.The door and hallway - The speaker uses the metaphor of enquirers knocking on a front door as they seek to gain entry into her innermost thoughts. She extends the image by describing the vulnerability she would experience as that felt when cold winds penetrate into the hallway:I cannotopeto every one who taps,And let the drafts come whistling thro' my hall;Come buffeting, astounding me,Nipping and clipping thro' my wraps and all. (lines 13-16)This stands in marked image to the motif of the door being opened in many other of Rossetti's poems.
More on intertextuality - Goblin Market: In Goblin Market, Rossetti describes the goblin men as they surround Lizzie with their ‘puffing and blowing' (line 333) (see Poems for study: Goblin Market). By describing the drafts as ‘buffeting' and ‘astounding' the speaker of Winter: My Secret associates them with unwanted intrusion. Like the goblin men who seek to throw Lizzie off the course that she is on, the winds that the speaker of Winter: My Secret describes threaten to destabilise her identity and render her vulnerable to an unspecified attack.
nvestigatingimagery and symbolismWhat associations do you have with the idea of a mask?How may a mask be a comforting piece of clothing for the speaker?Why do you think that the speaker describes her identity in terms of a house?How effective is this image?Why does the speaker suggest that winter is the most preferable season?
ThemesIdentityThe use of the personal pronouns ‘my' and ‘I' throughout the poem point to the speaker's sense of her individual identity. Holding a secret in the face of persistent enquiry implies a strong sense of self for the person who does so. The first line both begins and ends with the pronoun ‘I'. This suggests that the speaker encloses her secret within her own individual identity and that nothing can break through and disturb the concealed interior.NonsenseThe speaker suggests that she may be only teasing the listener when she declares that her secret may be ‘just my fun'. Nonsense was the poem's title in the manuscript version and hints at the playfulness of the speaker's tone.The revelation that there may in fact be ‘no secret after all' (line 8) suggests that the poem is more about the act of concealment and the practice of secrecy than it is about a particular secret itself.CuriosityReprimanding the reader for being ‘too curious' (line 4), the speaker emphasises that the secret is hers to give away or to conceal as she wishes. She suggests that her reticence to share her secret is a direct result of the reader's curiosity.In Goblin Market, Rossetti highlights the dangers of curiosity when she suggests that it was Laura's own curiosity that caused her downfall. In her later book of devotional prose, The Face of the Deep, Rossetti warns her readers against curiosity, which she perceives as a sin and compares to obedience. Referring to Eve's decision to eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden, she highlights the dangers of approaching God with ‘idle curiosity' instead of acceptance and obedience (p. 531).
Investigating themesWhat associations do you with the notion of something being nonsense?How appropriate do you think that the title Nonsense is for the poem?What does the speaker suggest the dangers of curiosity are?What moral lessons do you think that the poem can be seen to convey?How can these lessons be compared to the lessons given in Goblin Market?