Christina Rossetti is often calculated as a secretive, enigmatic character. Much is assumed about her from her poetry though little is actually known. It is difficult to draw conclusions from her poems regarding their content and meaning due to their intentional ambiguity. It is still debatable what messages, if any, many of her poems may be trying to convey.
In Winter: My Secret, though the title insinuates that there is a secret, it is unclear as to whether Rossetti is writing about an existing secret or about the concept of a secret. The original manuscript of the poem was titled Nonsense and so there is a possibility that all it is, is nonsense – that there is no secret or message within the poem – and that the poem is purely an expression of poetic ability.
However, the poem’s contents lead the reader to believe that there is a secret – ‘you may guess’ insinuates that there is a secret, in comparison to ‘I won’t tell’ which, to some, implies that there is nothing to tell. Also, through the use of questions, Rossetti keeps them intrigued as to what the secret is. She implies with each question that there is in fact a secret, as she is prolonging her having to tell her secret by repeating questions. Naturally, people would repeat and ask alternate questions to try and avoid answering the first question, and so this suggests that the narrator is applying this reflex naturally, rather than them intentionally teasing the reader.
Winter: My Secret begins as if mid-conversation, and so there is already some speculation about what the narrator is setting the poem in relation to. It also ends without a solid conclusion as to whether there is a secret, what that secret is, and whether it will ever be disclosed. Though there is no revelation about the secret, the poem is fuelled with secrecy and not only in the sense that it is about a secret. Rossetti covertly discusses the secret through a series of associations with irrelevant things, such as the weather and seasons, none of which actually enhance understanding of the secret itself.
Winter: My Secret appears to be a narrative poem about someone who is afraid of getting hurt emotionally, and so hides herself away from any potential loves. “I cannot ope’ to every one who taps” depicts the idea that this love-coy narrator is very wary of who she lets into her life, as every new acquaintance has the potential to hurt her.
The idea that the poem is about someone who keeps her heart a secret is supported by:
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
In that the wind is a changeable force that represents other people and their fickle nature. The nose in place of the heart, as it has stronger senses and awareness. Russian snows as love, as it is the harshest form of its kind, and pecking as being hurt by other people. “You would not peck? I thank you for good will” supports this further, as it can be translated as someone offering her love and telling her that they wouldn’t hurt her and the narrator rejecting them – ‘Believe, but leave that truth untested still’.
The narrator continues to relate the secret to the seasons, which complicates the opinion that the secret is the means to her heart. She dismisses spring as the season in which she’d expose her secret because of the vulnerability of the frosted flowers and the sunless hours – which discourage her from revealing her secret as she may be ‘pecked at’.
Rossetti describes summer as ‘languid’ and ongoing, and as the most prosperous season where the ‘golden fruit is ripening to excess’ and thus when her secret is most likely to survive untainted. The seasons may be portrayals of different love interests. It is unclear whether they are, and then if they are, whether or not they can be applied to Rossetti’s personal life.
In Maude Clare, the narrator never discloses why Maude Clare and the Lord parted, or even officially what relationship the two of them had. There is a sense that the narrator intentionally keeps these details a secret, as if to protect their Lord. Furthermore, throughout Maude Clare, the narrator remains anonymous adding to the idea of secrecy within the poem.
The poem progressively introduces Maude Clare. In the first stanza she is mentioned only as ‘like a queen’. It’s not until stanza eight that she becomes known as Lady Maude Clare and is formally given status. As Maude Clare begins to describe her gifts to the Lord and Lady Nell, it becomes clearer as to what her position within their lives is or had been. Though assumptions can be made that Maude Clare was the Lord’s true love before replacement Nell – ‘take my share of a fickle heart’ – it is unclear of exactly what their past is, thus adding to the mystery of the poem as so little is known about their history.
Maude Clare was originally forty-one stanzas long. In the original Maude Clare, the characters within the poem were represented and received very differently to how they are in the commonly referenced twelve-stanza poem. The fact that there are two published texts of the same poem by Christina Rossetti tell us a lot about how she writes and makes apparent the lack of a primarily thematic approach. The differences between the original poem and the 1862 version also show that Rossetti has a clear priority, to address the presentation of her poetry to a desired standard rather than its contents. Her ability to write objectively disproves assumptions that her poetry represents portions of her own life. Therefore, assumptions that her poems are secretive may be dismissed also, as the enigmatic manner throughout her poems may be as a result of editing to benefit the presentation of the poem in place of its contents, and not because she is indirectly sharing her secrets through her poems.
Rossetti cryptically ties the meanings of her poems, if any deliberate meaning at all, to the content of the poem. Thus any revelation to be found about Rossetti is easily misinterpreted and often disagreed over.