Featured Poem: ‘Winter: My Secret’ by Christina Rossetti

Today is the Winter Solstice and with it comes the official start of the longest (or so it seems) season of all. Although it really does seem like we’ve been in the thick of it for a little while, what with the plummeting temperatures, arctic winds and windows that drip with condensation greeting me each morning. Depending on which part of the UK you’re in, there’s a chance you’ve received your first flurry of snowfall. I know winter has really hit home when the heating system is switched on of a nightly basis and when I begin living in my biggest of jumpers and snuggliest of socks – and that has happened without me even realising.

So, this week’s featured poem has a wintry theme – although it’s the notion of an untold secret that arouses more interest. Yes, Christina Rossetti has certainly intrigued many with this poem and there have been any number of speculative guesses of what the secret she speaks of could possibly be. I have to admit that it was not what lay at the heart of said ‘secret’ that grabbed my immediate attention on first reading but the intertwining of the winter with the secret. The idea of keeping something secret seems to somehow fit quite comfortably with the season, with everything being wrapped up tight and hidden away more easily than it would usually be; the shawl, veil and cloak that Rossetti surrounds herself in keeps out the outer cold and protects the inner secret from the prying attention of others. Conversely, winter could also be the thing that threatens to expose a secret – note the draughts that ‘come whistling thro’ my hall…Nipping and clipping thro’ my wraps and all’, as well as the mask that is worn for ‘warmth’ and perhaps too for self-preservation. I also just love the idea of a secret being frozen that appears in the third line and the image it conjures up, of something forever held as it is, unknown and producing an endless quest for knowledge from those who see it. Much like any singular poem, I suppose, whose meaning remains a secret to everyone but its author.

Rossetti keeps us hanging, never revealing her secret – or indeed confirming that there is one to begin with – just giving us an estimated time of when we may know more, far off into the summer months when things and people alike generally are freer. Winter is a time to keep things close to your chest, to gather all the warmth you can. I think that this poem exudes a playful energy in its teasing and ambiguity, and hope it serves as a winter warmer.

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.

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

4 thoughts on “Featured Poem: ‘Winter: My Secret’ by Christina Rossetti”

  1. Here are some comments I made whilst reading the poem, which, I hope, may be useful to others, or at least strike upon familiar territory with some:-

    ‘I wear my mask for warmth’

    ‘Believe, but leave the truth untested still’

    last stanza – less and less, ripening to excess, all in balance stilled
    I may say, you may guess – yes, “leave the truth untested still” check-mating all her line by line contraindications yet also confirming their human shape in words and image

    she’s moved

    She is hard to fathom – which is what she wants. It is to do with herself, or ‘myself’ as we all think; the contradictoriness of our nature, the two voices within us, often enough, but, also that which has to look out to the world – and which the world pries into. Difficult, vulnerable and resilient – she clothes a deeper message – all the check-mating of her line by line contraindications, confirming what the human heart and soul recognise in ‘this business of living’ – that words can dispute any absolute synchronization between each yet simultaneously bind them, in this, our temporal world

  2. Yes! And here is Ruskin strutting his stuff:-

    ‘For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times: but once must do for this evening. I have just said that there is no chance of our getting good Art unless we delight in it: next say, and just as positively, that there is no chance of our getting good Art unless we resist our delight in it. We must love it first, and restrain our love for it afterwards.
    This sounds strange; and yet I assure you it is true. In fact, whenever anything does not sound strange, you may generally doubt its being true; for all truth is wonderful. But take an instance in physical matters, of the same kind of contradiction. Suppose you were explaining to a young student in astronomy how the earth was kept in steady orbit; you would have to state to him – would you not? – that the earth always had a tendency to fall to the sun; and that also it always had a tendency to fly away from the sun. These are two precisely contrary statements for him to digest at his leisure, before he can understand how the earth moves. Now, in like manner, when Art is set in its true and serviceable course, it moves under the same luminous attraction of pleasure on the one side, and with a stout moral purpose of going about some useful business on the other. If the artist works without delight, he passes away into space, and perishes of cold; if he works only for delight, he falls into the sun, and extinguishes himself in ashes. On the whole, this last is the fate, I do not say the most feared, but which Art has generally hitherto suffered, and which the great nations of the earth have suffered with it.’
    (Ruskin, Selected Writings, Inaugural Address, p.100-101, Oxford World Classics)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *