‘The Secret Heart’ by Robert Coffin speaks of a man remembering his father. In the poem, an invisible narrator recounts a man’s best memory of his father. Waking from sleep, the child sees his father standing over him. The father holds a lit match in cupped hands, checking on his son as he sleeps. To the boy, the glow from the match inside the cupped hands looks like a heart on his father’s chest. This analysis will explore the structure and meaning of the poem. Additionally, it will offer a detailed analysis of the poem, framing the work within the portrayal of masculinity in the early 20th century.
Born in 1892, Robert Coffin was an American poet. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1936. Coffin also worked as an educator, editor, literary critic, and writer before his death in 1955. He wrote ‘The Secret Heart’ in the early 1900s.
‘The Secret Heart’ by Robert Coffin is a narration of a man’s fondest childhood memory of his father.
In the poem, an invisible narrator tells of a man reminiscing about his childhood. As he slept as a boy, his father checked on him by the light of a match. The boy awoke to witness this tender moment. With the lit match in cupped hands, the glow projected the shape of a heart on his father’s chest. This projection represented the love the father held for the child, a love this nightly action gave expression to.
‘The Secret Heart’ has eleven stanzas, with each stanza consisting of a rhyming couplet. The lines in the poem have either seven or eight syllables. Combined with the rhyming couplets, this gives the poem a swaying rhythm, like a lullaby rocking a child to sleep. Also, the effect of the structure, rhyme, and rhythm fits with the memory of the boy awaking to see his father checking on him. The boy is not fully awake. He is swaying between dream and reality.
On first reading, it may seem like ‘The Secret Heart’ is solely about a man remembering a tender moment from his childhood. Delving deeper, however, we can uncover a hidden meaning. A secret meaning. The title, ‘The Secret Heart’, alludes to this secret meaning. The glow from the match held in cupped hands casts a lighted heart on the father’s chest. The narrator tells of the father: ‘He wore, it seemed to his small son, / A bare heart on his hidden one,’. The second line references the glow as a ‘bare heart’ projected on the ‘hidden one.’ Again, the poet alludes to a hidden meaning.
But what is this hidden meaning?
To uncover the hidden meaning, let’s focus on the act of checking up on the child while he sleeps. This is an act of love. However, it is a covert act performed at night while the child sleeps. There is no one around to witness such an act of love; the father does it in secret. And the glow from the match is a representation of this love. It is a heart in place of the hidden one. The child realizes this for what it is, an expression of his father’s love. He wore a bare heart, the child sees, on his hidden one.
Why, though, would the heart be hidden, be secret?
The answer can be found in the view of masculinity at the time. As mentioned, Coffin wrote ‘The Secret Heart’ in the early 1900s, a time when men were not expected to express emotions. So, a man’s love was expected to go unspoken. It is through secret action, therefore, that the father expresses his love for his son. The detailed analysis will further relate this old-fashioned view of masculinity to the poem.
For the detailed analysis, let us look at each of the eleven stanzas, which consist of rhyming couplets.
In the first stanza, an invisible narrator introduces a recollection.
Across the years he could recall
His father one way best of all.
Readers immediately see in the first line that a man is looking back many years. Also, the second line tells us the man reminisces about his father. Coffin does not state whether the memory will be fond or not. However, the rhyming couplet combined with the rhythm of the eight-syllable lines gives the opening a light-hearted feel. The poet almost soothes readers with this combination, inviting them to continue. So, let us accept that invitation and look at the second stanza.
The second stanza confirms that the man looks back many years to his childhood.
In the stillest hour of night
The boy awakened to a light.
He is a boy, stirring in the night, awakening to a light. Already in the first two stanzas, the rhythm and rhyme give a swaying impression. Read them aloud and you will feel the motion of moving forward and back, ready to move forward again into the next stanza.
Half in dreams, he was his sire
With his great hands full of fire.
In the third stanza, the reference to the boy half dreaming works with the rhyme and rhythm. He is swaying between dreams and reality. Coffin expertly uses words and form here to get this image across, beautiful writing. Also, the mention of the boy’s father with ‘hands full of fire’ works with this half-dreaming state. It is intriguing for the reader. What exactly is the boy seeing? Here, Coffin piques our curiosity, encouraging us to read on.
The curiosity from the third stanza leads us to a tender moment in the fourth stanza.
The man had struck a match to see
If his son slept peacefully
To check on his sleeping son, the man lit a match to see. The use of a match is interesting. Why not a candle? It could be that a match gives off less light so as not to wake the boy. Or, it could relate to the covert expression of love, as fitting with the times the poem was written. The next stanza seems to bolster the latter explanation.
He held his palms each side the spark
His love had kindled in the dark.
In the first line of the fifth stanza, the father holds the flame in cupped hands, to contain it. The flame is associated with love in the second line of this stanza, a love that ‘kindled in the dark.’ So, his love is only expressed in the dark, and furthermore, it is contained by his hands. Taken with the covert nature of checking on the boy in the dark while he sleeps, this can be related to the view of masculinity at the time. The father is the representation of the masculine. He is the sire.
At that time, he could not freely express his emotions. Society expected men to be stoic. So, he had to sneak in during the night to check on his son, an expression of love. And the flame represents that love. He still has to contain it, however. It cannot be allowed to shine too brightly. But it shines enough, as we will see in the following stanzas.
In the sixth stanza, we see that the father’s cupped hands make the shape of a heart.
His two hands were curved apart
In the semblance of a heart.
The heart further positions the reader to think of a loving act. In our society, hearts symbolize love. So, the flame and the heart both represent the love of the father for his son. The next stanza relates back to the old-fashioned view of masculinity.
He wore, it seemed to his small son,
A bare heart on his hidden one,
Here, the son sees the flame projected as a heart on his father’s chest. It is a projection of love. This visible love, however, this ‘bare heart’, is upon a ‘hidden one.’ As previously mentioned, this hidden heart alludes to a hidden meaning. The title, ‘The Secret Heart’, relates to the love that the masculine must keep hidden, the secret heart within. At the time, a man was not expected to express emotion.
Therefore, his love was expected to go unspoken. Here, however, we see it expressed in action. The lighted heart on his chest is a symbol of that action, of his love for his son. It is an unspoken love, as fitting with the times, which the next stanza compounds.
A heart that gave out such a glow
No son awake could bear to know.
In the first line of the eighth stanza, the poet uses ‘heart’ and ‘glow’ to again make reference to love. So, it is love that the boy could not ‘bear to know’ when awake. The use of ‘awake’ is interesting here. Being awake carries connotations of daytime. So, the love cannot be expressed in the light of day, cannot be seen. This would fit with the masculine containing emotions, not letting them see the light of day.
It showed a look upon a face
Too tender for the day to trace.
To this point, the analysis suggests that this ‘look upon a face’ is a look of love. Moreover, the use of ‘tender’ in the second line of the ninth stanza reinforces that suggestion. To be tender in this instance relates to love. However, it can also relate to sensitivity. This is a clever wordplay on Coffin’s part. The expression of love is too sensitive to be displayed during the day. And as proposed, the masculine cannot display any emotion, cannot be sensitive, tender.
In the tenth stanza, the boy realizes his father’s love.
One instant, it lit all about,
And then the secret heart went out.
The glow ‘lit all about’ is a reference to the boy’s realization of his father’s love. The light cast aside the darkness; the love was revealed. When the father leaves, ‘the secret heart went out.’ The love is again hidden away, unspoken, as fitting with societal expectations. The boy saw it, however, in that tender moment between him and his father, as evidenced in the final stanza.
But it shone long enough for one
To know that hands held up the sun.
So, the last stanza confirms that the boy knew of his father’s love in that instance. His ‘hands held up the sun.’ The reference to the sun is interesting. The sun represents life, and the father gave life to the son. Also, Coffin again utilizes wordplay to great effect: sun and son. Therefore, the father held up his son but also the sun. Interestingly, the sun symbolizes the universal father in some cultures. That is another reference to the masculine, further bolstering the points made in this analysis.
The flame and the heart are two symbols used in ‘The Secret Heart’. A flame, or fire, can symbolize various things. Here, however, it gives off warmth and light and is a symbol of love. A flame is also a symbol of eternal life, so here it can be thought of as eternal love. The heart is also a symbol of love, which is well-known in Western culture.
The main theme explored in ‘The Secret Heart’ by Robert Coffin is a father’s love for his son. Moreover, the expression of such love is explored. And how society at the time viewed the masculine expression of love.
Yes, Robert Coffin wrote other famous poems. In 1936, his collection Strange Holiness (1935) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Some of his other poems are ‘Old Blue’, ‘Towers of Good Will’, and ‘Never the Hawk’.
Those who liked the father/son element in ‘The Secret Heart‘ by Robert Coffin may also enjoy these two poems:
If you enjoy poems about love, you may want to look at these two: