This is a challenging poem made even more obscure with her use of legal language, “remits”, “surmise”, “inviolate”. Perhaps she is suggesting that the secrets deep in our heart go to die once they are uttered. Secrets are the opposite of life in that if the “word” gives life (as in the biblical sense), then speaking a secret “word” kills the secret. Communication is life.
The word “Secrets” has an unusual definition. At first reading it seems as if she is talking about how we conceal something from someone else, and while she is exploring this aspect of a secret, the word “secret” is worth investigating a little further. Secret comes to us from the Latin “sēcrētus” which shares a relationship with “sēcrēt” meaning secrete, which basically means “to separate” (OED for sēcernĕre from which sēcrēt is the participial stem and which the English word “secern” is derived from which meant to “separate from the blood). In other words, what Emily is suggesting about “Secrets” is that they cannot exist on their own and once they are separated from the heart, the blood, the body, they die “dumb”.
Thus buried deep within the word “Secrets” is the desire for it to be removed from the body, for it to be secreted and purged from ‘the Human Breast”. “Secrets” are not meant to be “Dungeoned” inside us because left concealed in our hearts they will “Grate” at our hearts they way a guilty prisoner will tear at his prison cell, his bleeding fingers tearing at the stones in his fits of rage and anger, until both he and the cell are left uninhabitable. Furthermore, failing to release the “Secrets” in our hearts is like carrying death inside us. These “Secrets” on their own cannot live in the fresh air of freedom, yet locked away they invite a slow death as they gnaw at us. “Secrets” are truly “dumb” in that they want freedom but paradoxically are killed once let loose. If a secret wants to live it must remain hidden and take the host with it, like an infectious disease.
Emily has also buried legal terms within this poem which suggests she is concerned with how “Secrets” work against the laws of humanity (and perhaps universal truths), but she also expresses the anxiety we all have about revealing our “Secrets” for fear we will be judged. For example, if a person stole from their neighbor because they were hungry, they would not only be ashamed at being judged for their poverty in the eyes of their community, they would also be ashamed to have committed the act of theft, even though it was necessary for them to live. They have broken the law – both human law and God’s law – and so they fear retribution of the judge (legal system) who will prosecute their crimes. Thus the starving person remains silent, yet they now carry with them this “Secret” of having broken the law as well as the shame of their poverty which led to the crime which they want to remain a secret.
Emily describes the paradox inside this poem with how “secrets lie”. Though at first it seems as if she is using the word “lie” to describe something that is resting or hidden, she also means that “secrets lie” in that they don’t speak the truth: they “lie”. Yet how can something remain silent (as in keeping a secret) yet also speak (tell a lie)? This is the heart of the issue she is exploring in that in order to keep a secret a person must cover it up, they must lie to throw the judges off their track, which then leads to more “Secrets” and more lying. The person caught in this cycle is thus secreting lies which is like the image of a dying body that is secreting a disease. Yet if the original secret were revealed then the body might be cured of its disease because once the secret is out in the open it immediately dies because it is no longer a secret. True, the secret holder may then be at the mercy of the law – such as the starving person who stole from their neighbor – but there is nothing left to hide since the truth has been revealed.
Thus we can either go to our grave (“Sepulchre”) with our “Secrets” which have consumed us, or we can clear the air and, though our mortal bodies will still die, if we confess our “Secrets” then we will be judged worthy and be granted life (according to Christian theology).