A Red, Red Rose
In his native Scotland, he’s much beloved, and he was a total star during his lifetime, which spanned the years from 1759 to 1796. Wait a second. Did you notice those dates? Apparently Burns died pretty young—at 37, to be exact. But as luck would have it, he only became more popular after his death.
To make a long story short, this guy is, without question, the native bard of Scotland. In fact, folks there even call him “The Bard” (among a ton of other nicknames), which, we’re betting, some Englishmen take issue with. Rumor has it that he is so popular there that one can buy a book of Burns’s poems in a gas station (we’d like somebody to confirm this for us).
So why all the love for an old dead guy? Well, there are actually a ton of reasons. For one, the 18th century was an important time for Scotland; Edinburgh was rapidly developing as a cultural center in Europe, and Burns tapped into that new sense of cultural identity. Much of his poetry makes use of Scottish folklore and legend, and much of it is written in Scots English, the form of English spoken in Scotland at the time. Burns was one of the first writers to put this primarily oral or spoken language into writing, which celebrated the Scottish national identity in a very real way. How cool is that?
Burns was also popular, even idealized, because he was a farmer—a laborer—with mad poetry skills. People were amazed that somebody like Burns, who certainly did not have the same education as a wealthy citizen of London or Edinburgh, could produce the beautiful, humorous, witty, and intelligent poetry found in his first published volume, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786). This strange phenomenon—a farmer who was also a genius—earned Burns one of his most famous nicknames, “the heaven-taught ploughman.”
But Burns wasn’t all about himself and his verse. He was also pretty big on preserving traditional Scottish songs and folktales, many of which he had nothing to do with writing. Luckily, his experience as a farm-laborer familiarized him with the lore of rural Scotland, and as a result he was asked to contribute to Pietro Urbani’s Selections of Scots Songs, published in 1794.
And that brings us to your new favorite poem, “A Red, Red Rose.” Although it first appeared in print in Urbani’s volume, it had been around for quite some time before the collection. That’s because the poem’s phrases and ideas can be found in any number of other “songs” popular in Scotland before and during Burns’s lifetime.
So then why are we calling this a Robert Burns original? Good question. It’s because there’s no doubt that our buddy Bob put his own spin on things. He made this traditional song his own, and it’s gone down in history as his work.
Why Should I Care?
You’ve seen it on greeting cards, you’ve seen it in school, and there’s a good chance that the line “my love is like a red, red rose” is one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of poetry (“A Red, Red Rose” is one of the first poems that many children learn).
While almost everybody is familiar with the first line of “A Red, Red Rose” most people probably don’t know that Robert Burns first made it famous, or, for that matter, that it was once a traditional Scottish country song, popular in the rural areas of Scotland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, if not before.
But if the whole origins thing isn’t your cup of tea, consider this; since the beginning of time (no seriously, since the beginning of time), people have fallen in love and attempted to describe this truly indescribable feeling in letters, poems, pop songs, even sky writing. Love is so complicated, so powerful, that we have to find a bunch of different ways to talk about it, a billion things to compare it to.
And “A Red, Red Rose” is no different. Seriously, check out this list of all the different ways Burns tries to pin down love in this poem:
- It’s like a brand new rose.
- It’s like a sweet melody.
- It’s as deep as his main squeeze is beautiful.
- It’ll last longer than the seas.
- It’ll last longer than the rocks.
- It’ll last as long as the “sands o’ life” last.
All these declarations sure pack a punch. And an age-old punch at that. Each new comparison points to love’s incredible power, sure, but it also points to the fact that it’s practically impossible to actually describe love in the first place. The only thing we can do is offer up a big old list to try to talk our way out of the conundrum. Or sing our way out, depending on how you look at it.
The poem opens with the speaker comparing his love to a “A Red, Red Rose” and to a “melodie / That’s sweetly play’d in tune!” In the second and third stanzas, the speaker describes how deep his love is. And it’sdeep. He will love his “bonnie lass” as long as he is alive, and until the world ends. At the end, he says adios, and notes that he will return, even if he has to walk ten thousand miles.