A Red Red Rose

What kind of love do you think can stand the test of time? According to a Scottish folk ballad, love that is like ‘A Red, Red Rose’ can last eternally. The classic folk song, ‘A Red, Red Rose’ was written down by Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns in 1794. Though the exact origins of the song’s oral tradition are uncertain, there is nothing uncertain about the narrator’s romantically dramatic proclamation that his love for his “bonnie lass” can last. ‘A Red, Red Rose’ by Robert Burns makes bold declarations of lasting love in four short stanzas that explore the expansive themes of youth and beauty, and love and time. 

A Red Red Rose A Red Red Rose

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Table of contents

    A Red, Red Rose, Blooming Red Rose, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A blooming red rose is a symbol of love.

    ‘A Red, Red Rose’ Information Overview
    Author:Robert Burns (1759-1796)
    Literary Movement:Pre-Romantic
    Type of Poem:Ballad
    Rhyme Scheme:ABCB
    Key Themes:Youth and beauty, love and time
    Literary Devices: Simile, metaphor, alliteration, repetition, anaphora, imagery

    Robert Burns A Red, Red Rose Background Information

    ‘A Red, Red Rose’ is a traditional folk song often published as a poem. ‘A Red, Red Rose’ is attributed to the national poet of Scotland, Robert, or ‘Robbie,’ Burns (1759-1796). The song was published in a number of folk song collections, but was first published in a book called Scots Songs in 1794. Towards the end of his life, Robert Burns focused on collecting traditional Scottish folk songs so they could be recorded and shared. While Robert Burns recorded these Scottish folk songs, they had already been passed down orally through generations. Therefore, Burns is not quite their author, but rather their transcriber. Numerous ballads and poems reaching as far back as the 1600s have been cited as possible sources for the words of ‘A Red, Red Rose.’

    Robert Burns played a key role in the popularization of ‘A Red, Red Rose,’ as his written version of it was published in A Selection of Scots Songs (1794), The Scots Musical Museum (1797), and A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (1799). ‘A Red, Red Rose’ is most commonly sung to the tune of a 1600s traditional folk song called ‘Low Down in the Broom.’

    Robert Burns is also accredited with the recording of the traditional folk song and famous new year’s anthem, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (1796). In addition to recording traditional folk songs, Burns wrote his own poetry.

    Robert Burns A Red, Red Rose literary context

    ’A Red, Red Rose’ is known as a pre-romantic poem, as Robert Burns was a poet who influenced Romanticism (1790-1850). The Romantic Movement characteristics of strong feelings, emotions, and the glorification of nature can be seen in the poem’s narrator explaining his passionate, everlasting love through comparison to a lasting red rose in bloom.

    Robert Burns A Red, Red Rose full Poem

    ‘A Red, Red Rose’ Full PoemNotes/Annotations
    O my Luve is like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June; O my Luve is like the melody That’s sweetly played in tune.Luve: Love in Scots dialect“my Luve” can refer to both the speaker’s feelings of love, and the woman who is his “Luve”
    So fair art thou, my bonnie lass, So deep in luve am I; And I will luve thee still, my dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry.bonnie lass: pretty ladya’: allgang: go
    Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; I will love thee still, my dear, While the sands o’ life shall run.wi’: witho’: of”sands o’ life shall run” refers to an hourglass
    And fare thee weel, my only luve! And fare thee weel awhile! And I will come again, my luve, Though it were ten thousand mile.fare thee weel: fare the well, goodbye, farewell

    Robert Burns A Red, Red Rose Summary and Meaning

    In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker compares his “Luve,” or love, to a red rose that is “newly sprung in June” 1 (Lines 1-2). The word “Luve” can be understood as a term of endearment for the speaker‘s love interest, or as the speaker’s feelings of love. The comparison of his love to a fresh rose suggests the newness, freshness, and beauty of this romance and of the woman’s youth. The speaker goes on to compare his love to a “melody / That’s sweetly played in tune” 1 (Lines 3-4). This further romanticizes the harmonious feelings of love, as if everything feels perfect and right when the speaker and his "luve" are together. Burns suggests that the look, as well as the sound of love, is beautiful and sweet.

    A Red, Red Rose, A Rose on Sheet Music, StudySmarterFig. 2 - "A Red, Red Rose" was written as a song.

    In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker more specifically addresses his lover, saying, “So fair thou art thou, my bonnie lass” 1 (Line 5). The word “fair” is used as an indication of the woman’s delicate beauty, and “bonnie lass” is a Scottish term of endearment meaning pretty lady. The woman’s beauty is reflected by the image of the rose, and the deep red color of the rose can be seen to reflect how “deep in luve” 1 the speaker is (Line 6). In lines 7 and 8, the speaker says that his love for his “dear” will carry on even when the seas run dry, indicating that he will love her past the end of earthly time. This marks a shift in the idea of love presented from the temporary but passionate beauty of a blooming rose, to a love that lasts forever.

    In the third stanza of the poem, the narrator repeats that he will love the woman until the seas run dry. He adds that he will love her even when “the rocks melt wi’ the sun” 1 and “while the sands o’ life shall run” 1 (Lines 10 and 12). The words describing the sands of life running evoke the imagery of an hourglass, with sand running down to indicate time running out. The use of natural imagery to depict the end of time conveys that everything has an end, even the seemingly infinite and ancient things on Earth like the sea, rocks, and sand. However, the speaker sees love as having the unique quality to persist eternally.

    A Red, Red Rose, Hourglass, StudySmarterFig. 3 - An hourglass is an indication that time running out.

    In the fourth stanza of the poem, the speaker smoothly, yet unexpectedly transitions from the idea of time running out, to wishing his lover farewell. However, he indicates that this is not a permanent parting, as he will come again, no matter how far the distance or how much time passes.

    Robert Burns A Red, Red Rose Analysis

    Below is an analysis of the structure, form, rhyme scheme, and meter of the poem.

    Robert Burns ‘A Red, Red Rose’ structure and form

    ’A Red, Red Rose’ is a ballad written in four quatrains, or four stanzas of four lines each. The ballad form helps present the emotions of a man who has to leave his lover in a song-like form with a consistent rhyme scheme and memorable meter.

    A ballad is a narrative song, traditionally passed down orally. A ballad typically centers around a tragic or dramatic event. English ballads are typically written in quatrains (four-line stanzas) that follow the ABCB rhyme scheme. The meter of a ballad normally alternates between lines with 4 stresses and lines with 3 stresses.

    Robert Burns ‘A Red, Red Rose’ rhyme scheme

    ‘A Red, Red Rose’ follows the ABCB rhyme scheme, which creates continuity and a song-like quality to the reading of the words. However, in the third and fourth stanzas, A and C are actually the same words. The effect of this repetition is that it emphasizes the terms of endearment “my dear” and “my love,” continuously drawing attention back to the object of the narrator’s affection, and his tenderness towards her. The repetition of the “my dear” in the third stanza, creates a consistency that weaves through the second and third stanzas:

    “So fair art thou, my bonnie lass, —A So deep in luve am I; —BAnd I will luve thee still, my dear, —C Till a’ the seas gang dry. —BTill a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; I will love thee still, my dear, While the sands o’ life shall run.” 1

    (Lines 5-12)

    Robert Burns ‘A Red, Red Rose’ meter

    The meter at the beginning of ‘A Red, Red Rose’ is inconsistent with the typical ballad poem meter because has six stresses. The additional stresses serve to emphasize the alliteration of the lines, and draw attention to the image and subject presented in the title—the rose. This slightly elongated line creates a slower start, which is common in the singing of the beginnings of folk songs (imagine the holding of the note of an “O” to indicate the start of a song).

    O my Luve is like a red, red rose1 (Line 1)

    The meter of the second, third, and fourth stanzas are more consistent with the traditional ballad poetry meter, in generally featuring alternating lines that switch between four stresses and three stresses per line. The poem's meter is mostly iambic, meaning the syllables are paired in patterns of unstressed and then stressed syllables. However, there are variations in the poem's meter, such as in the last line where there are four stresses instead of three, and the line starts with a stressed syllable rather than an unstressed one. This variation in the poem's meter creates an elongated feel to the reading of the line, which emphasizes the distance that the lovers will be apart.

    “And fare thee weel, my only luve!

    And fare thee weel awhile! And I will come again, my luve, Though it were ten thousand mile.” 1

    (Lines 13-16)

    Robert Burns A Red, Red Rose Themes

    The themes of this poem include the following youth, beauty, love, and time.

    The theme of youth and beauty

    The idea of youth and beauty is presented at the very start of the poem in the description of the rose. A rose is a symbol of love and beauty, and the emphasis on its "red, red" color suggests both vibrancy and passion. The fact that the rose is characterized as “newly sprung in June” 1 conveys the idea of youth (Line 2). The rose is fresh, beautiful, and young, like the narrator's feelings of love, and like his lover. Rather than focusing on the specifics of his lover's appearance, the narrator focuses on the beauty of his feelings toward her and the faith and hope he has in their love.

    The theme of love and time

    Although youth and beauty are often seen as fleeting things, and the blooming of a flower is confined to a certain period of time, this poem proclaims the sentiment that love can be everlasting. While the new bloom of a rose may only last a few weeks, the symbol of the rose as a representative of love has stood through the ages. The narrator suggests that love experienced in the beauty and passion of youth is powerful and can withstand time by adapting to change. The narrator makes dramatic claims that his love for his "dear" will last even after there the seas dry up, the rocks melt in the sun, and the sand runs out.

    The theme of love withstanding time and change, as if they did not exist at all, is a biblical idea, as love is said to outlive hope and faith and carry into eternal life. The narrator has no doubts that his love will endure, so even though his parting from his lover is sad, he is filled with the light of hope of being in love.

    Robert Burns A Red, Red, Rose Literary Devices

    The poem features literary devices such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, paradox, and anaphora.

    Simile and Metaphor of A Red, Red, Rose

    "O my Luve is like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June" 1 (Lines 1-2)

    The poem begins with a simile comparing the speaker's "Luve" to a freshly blooming red rose. This simile suggests that this love is young, fresh, vibrant, passionate, and beautiful. It allows the reader to understand the speaker's overwhelming and joyful attitude towards being in love and characterizes the love he feels through comparison to the beauty of nature.

    Alliteration in ‘A Red, Red, Rose’

    "O my Luve is like a red, red rose" 1 (Line 1) "Though it were ten thousand mile." 1 (Line 16)

    The poem is framed with alliteration, as it is a prominent feature of the first and last lines. The alliteration helps carry the reader through the phrase while drawing attention to significant ideas such as the vibrant image of the rose and the long separation. The alliteration serves as a form of exaggeration, stressing the ideas of color and distance.

    Paradox in A Red, Red, Rose

    "And I will luve thee still, my dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry." 1 (Lines 7-8)

    There is a paradox, or apparent contradiction between the idea of finite time and everlasting love in 'A Red, Red Rose.' While the rose's new bloom and vibrant color can only last a little while, the speaker uses this initial depiction to eventually introduce the idea of everlasting love.

    In this example, the speaker says he will "luve thee still," or continue to love the woman ”Till” the seas run dry. This is a paradox because the word "still" has the connotation of continuing, present, and lasting, while "Till" has the connotation of until a certain amount of time. This subtle contradiction suggests that love can surpass the end of earthly time and endure great changes.

    Anaphora in A Red, Red, Rose

    "And fare thee weel, my only luve! And fare thee weel awhile!" 1 (Lines 14-16)

    The anaphora, or repetition of the phrase "and fare thee weel" emphasizes the fact that the narrator must leave his love, but they are leaving on good and optimistic terms. The repetition of the phrase mimics the way people normally say goodbye multiple times upon parting. In the poem, the anaphora creates a dramatic effect by elongating the idea of parting.

    A Red, Red Rose - Key Takeaways

    • 'A Red, Red Rose' is a traditional Scottish folk song that was written down by Robert Burns and first published in 1794. It is frequently published as a poem.
    • The poem is a ballad.
    • The poem explores the themes of youth and beauty and love and time.
    • The poem conveys the meaning that love can withstand time and change.
    • The poem compares love to a "newly sprung" 'Red, Red Rose,' suggesting that it is fresh, young, vibrant, passionate, and beautiful.

    1 Robert Burns, ‘A Red, Red Rose,’ 1794.

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