Winter: My Secret was published in Rossetti’s first collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems. This collection largely consisted of non-devotional poetry and differs from the more religious verses on which Rossetti concentrated in her later publications. The most typical thing about this poem is Rossetti’s innovative experimentation with form, imagery, and metaphors, a trait for which she is known.
The poem, Winter: My Secret by Christina Rossetti, has confounded contemporary and modern critics as well as readers, as there is no apparent secret to which the poem can be related, and Rossetti’s verse resists revealing its subject. While there are many interpretations and speculations associated with this poem, there exists no definitive explanation of the secret the speaker is so closely guarding. Modern readers can only guess at what she is hiding!
Structure and Tone
The tone of Winter: My Secret is, without a doubt coy and teasing in nature. The speaker playfully addresses an unknown listener, engaging him or her in dialogue as she refuses to reveal a closely-guarded secret, despite the listener’s obvious pleading. While the gender of the speaker is not clear, some believe it to be a woman, citing as proof the references to a ‘shawl’ and a ‘veil,’ which are items of clothing typically associated with women. The poem is not formally structured, consists of four stanzas of varying length and irregular rhyming patterns.
The rhyme scheme is largely constructed of rhyming couplets or triplets, which increase the pace at which the poem is read and adds to a sense of passion and playfulness.
Winter: My Secret Analysis
I tell my secret? No indeed, not I;
Perhaps someday, 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.
The first stanza of the poem, Winter: My Secret by Christina Rossetti, brings to us its premise: the speaker gets herself/himself engaged in a form of dialogue with her listener and, though we only hear the speaker’s side of this dialogue, we can assume that the listener is begging the speaker, rather persistently, to divulge a particular secret. The speaker, however, refuses to do so: she claims that the day is too cold for her to reveal her secret, and rebuffs the listener playfully but a little impatiently.
Winter: My Secret opens with the line ‘I tell my secret? No indeed, not I’, which means that she is responding to an undisclosed listener who has asked her to reveal or divulge her secret. She is playful and coy suggesting that she may ‘some day’ be willing to tell all, but ‘not today’, rather unusually citing the cold weather as the reason. She accuses the listener of being ‘too curious’ to know what she is hiding and demonstrates her growing impatience by uttering the oath ‘fie’ in response to the listener’s pestering.
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.
In the second stanza of Winter: My Secret, the speaker once again becomes mocking and coy, when she says that she may not even have a secret ‘after all’ and that she is only having ‘fun’ by teasing the listener into thinking that there is one. The remainder of the stanza then once again focuses on the weather, and describe the cold as ‘nipping’ and ‘biting’, requiring her to wear layers of clothes for warmth. It is here that the speaker’s metaphorical use of the cold becomes clear: it is likened to the persistent curiosity of the listener, who assaults the speaker with pleas and questions. This on-going assault is also echoed in her use of the words ‘bounding’, ‘surrounding’, ‘buttering’ and ‘astounding’, and give the reader a sense of the intensity of the verbal attack.
Her clothing –her ‘wraps’ afford a kind of safety, not only from the cold, but from the prying eyes of onlookers who are waiting to know her secret. The suggestion that she wears her ‘mask for warmth’ indicates that it offers comfort to her, as she can hide behind it and avoid revealing herself. Her secret, then, forms part of her identity, which she prefers keeping hidden beneath the disguising ‘cloak’ and ‘mask’. She feels that by revealing her secret, she would be revealing too much of herself.
The door and the hallway in this stanza have also used a metaphor: the inquiries knocking at the door represent those who would have access or insight to her inner self, which she is not willing to reveal. She asserts that she ‘cannot open to everyone who taps’ or, in other words, that she cannot reveal her true self or her secrets simply to anyone. The cold draughts that ‘come whistling thro’ (her) hall’, ‘surrounding’ her, describe her uneasiness with and weakness to the penetrating curiosity of the enquirers.
She insists that her desire to protect her privacy is only natural: after all, she says, ‘who ever shows/His nose to Russian snows’, by which she means that it is foolish and possibly risky to expose your inner self to the cold scrutiny of others, so that they may ‘peck’ at you. Here, she once again responds to the listener, who seems to have assured her that she/he ‘would not peck’ at her if she revealed her secret. The speaker thanks to the listener for his/her ‘good will’ in this regard, but would rather not put this claim to the test.
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.
The third stanza, continuing with the seasonal imagery, moves from a description of winter to spring, which the speaker describes as ‘an expansive time’. She here refers to the new life and the abundance of growth that characterize spring in the natural world – the blossoming flowers and the birth of animals.
While spring is usually portrayed in a positive light in poetry, the speaker describes it as a season she cannot trust, as it is too changeable and unsettled. March or early spring, she says, is made unpleasant by the ‘peck of dust’ raised by winds. April, meanwhile, is characterized by thunderstorms, whereas the flowers which bloom in May are easily killed by a late frost and ‘sunless hours’.
Read in conjunction with the last two lines of the previous stanza, this third stanza could be understood as referring to the changeability and unreliability of human nature. Though spring holds the promise of pleasantness and beauty – just as the listener promises not to ‘peck’ at or judge her should she reveal her secret – such promises cannot be relied upon? Just as the beauties of spring can be marred by changes in the weather, so too can human nature reveal itself to be ugly and fickle, despite the best of intentions.
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.
In the fourth stanza of Winter: My Secret, the speaker reveals that summer is the season in which she is most likely to reveal her secret. Free of the ‘wraps’ she is forced to wear in winter, she is in danger of revealing more of herself than before; however, this does not seem to cause her any anxiety: the imagery used in this stanza is temperate and calm, not suggestive of any sort of excess or urgency.
Contrary to the despairing curiosity which characterized the enquirer’s pleas in the first and second stanzas (which are associated with winter) and the instability which pervaded the third stanza (described in terms of spring), the summer is described as ‘linguid’, relaxed, unhurried and even ‘drowsy’.
The day itself is described as moderate, neither too cloudy not too sunny, too still nor too windy, and even the birds are quiet. It is against the backdrop of this temperate setting, the speaker suggests, that she will be able to reveal her secret. If you read it along with the previous stanzas, this could suggest that it is only when the enquirer’s desperation to know her secret is tempered, diminished, that she will feel comfortable revealing it.