"A Red, Red Rose" is about a kind of love that will outlast even the destruction of the earth—the evaporation of the seas, the melting of rocks. It is a love so strong that the speaker would have no problem walking ten thousand miles to be back with his "bonnie lass." It's not just love, but "love, love."
And what do we associate most with love? Roses. Especially red ones. We buy them for significant others on Valentine's Day and other occasions. We pin them on would-be suitors' lapels. We strew their petals down wedding aisles. You can't go wrong with roses, you might say. But the rose in the title isn't just a red one; it's a red, red one. It's really red. Really, really red. That repetition reminds us that this dude is not playing around. His love is no joke, lest you write him off as another lothario.
As we mentioned in our "In a Nutshell" section, Robert Burns was The Poet of Scotland. In fact, in many ways, he still is today. His poems are Scottish through and through, and a big part of that stems from his own sense of national identity. The guy really wanted to preserve the Scottish heritage of folk songs, ballads, and other rural oral literature from the countryside.
And this poem is no exception to that rule. With its mentions of the sea, the rocks, the sun, we might as well be wandering the Scottish moors in search of folk songs ourselves. It's hard to imagine anyone other than a rural farmer or shepherd singing this tune, though we're sure many an urbanite has tried.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to suss out the two most important qualities of our speaker. The dude's head over heels, prime time 100% in love with his bonnie lass. Oh, and he's Scottish.
Other than that, we know that he's leavin', and it's most definitely not on a jet plane, given that this is the 18th century. And that's unfortunate because his journey's a long one—possibly ten thousand miles. That's way farther than The Proclaimers were willing to walk.
And honestly, Shmoopers, that's all you need to know about our new friend. He's Scottish, and he's in love, and he doesn't care who knows it.
Burns's "A Red, Red Rose" was once a rural or folksong common in Scotland; there aren't really any crazy words to hinder you. The ones that do look funny turn out to be odd spellings of common words ("weel" is "well," "gang" is "go"), and they give the poem a little local flavor. Even if these words seem unfamiliar at first, they're not so different from their so-called normal equivalents to really trip you up. Sure, some of Burns's poems can be a handful, but this one is not.
Robert Burns is, without question, the most famous Scottish poet of all time, and one of the most well known poets of the later eighteenth century. His first published volume of poetry was called Poems, Written Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), and it is safe to say that Burns went a long way toward popularizing the use of Scottish words.
While a number of other writers followed Burns's lead in using their own, native dialect (chief among them the great poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in the generation after Burns), most of the poems you will encounter that contain "Scotticisms" will most likely be Burns poems.
So if you're reading a poem that sounds Scottish and contains some really funny-looking words, there's probably a 95% chance that it's a Burns poem. Words like "bonnie" and "lass," "gang" and "weel," are hallmarks of Burns's poetry; while other poets might sometimes drop in a similar word or two here and there, none do so with quite the same gusto as our man Burns.
This one's a classic, so it's no wonder it uses some of the most classic forms in all of poetry and music. "A Red, Red Rose" is written partly in ballad meter (the first eight lines) and partly in common meter (the last eight lines).
You know what that means—it's time for a little poetry lesson. Don't worry, we'll be brief, and then we'll get back to the poem at hand.
A poem in ballad meter consists of four-line stanzas (called quatrains) that alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. And in ballad meter, the second and fourth line of each stanza must rhyme (but the first and third do not have to). The only difference between ballad meter and common meter is that in common meter the first and third lines of each stanza, in addition to the second and fourth, must rhyme.
Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Burns was no stranger to the ballad, so "A Red, Red Rose" conforms pretty strictly to the form. It alternates between iambic tetrameter in the odd-numbered lines and iambic trimeter in the even-numbered ones.
Iambic trimeter, as you might have already guessed, is the same as iambic tetrameter, except there are three (tri-) iambs instead of four, as in line 2: That's new-ly sprung in June.
Now, this is all fine and dandy, but things start to get kind of weird, metrically, in the third line and beyond, when Burns starts tossing in extra syllables and other quirky things to keep us on our toes.
Like line 10 for example. It has seven syllables, when it should have six. What's up with that? Not to fear, fellow Shmoopers, we have a very good answer. Let's assume the line's first foot is not an iamb (daDUM) but an anapest (dadaDUM). If we scan the line in the following way, we have a line of neat, flowing trimeter: And the rocks melt wi' the sun.
TMI, you say? Fair enough. For all intents and purposes, it's totally cool to just notice that the third stanza is a little weirder than the rest and move on. But for all you scansion lovers out there, just know that this poem is ripe with opportunities to geek out on the meter. What about lines 11 and 12? Or line 16?
We mentioned earlier that in ballad meter the second and fourth lines of each stanza must rhyme (but not necessarily the first and third). That means the first two stanzas rhyme a little something like this: ABCB DEFE. B rhymes with B, E rhymes with E, and so on; because only the second and fourth lines of each stanza (those marked B and E) rhyme, this looks like ballad meter.
But the rhyme scheme of the second half of the poem looks like this: FGFG HIHI. In these stanzas, the first and third lines, and the second and fourth lines rhyme, making these stanzas, strictly speaking, an example of common meter.
In reality, ballad meter and common meter are just about the same thing (used in the same types of traditional, common, folksy poetry). It's just that usually a poem that is looser in its rhyme scheme (like the first two stanzas of "A Red, Red Rose" is called ballad meter, while one that is stricter (like the last two stanzas) is in common meter. But honestly, who's really counting?
Roses, seas, rocks, sun. There's a whole lotta shakin'—oops, we mean nature going on in this poem. The speaker uses nature in various ways to describe the depth and power of his love. But hey, this poem comes from rural Scotland—the land of lochs and glens and heaths. Is it any wonder this guy would use nature to write about his love?
It's a love poem, plain and simple. In fact, "A Red, Red Rose" just so happens to be one of the most famous love poems of all time, too. Nearly ever line in the poem says something about love, so it makes sense that this puppy has been slapped on more than its fair share of greeting cards.
The entire last stanza of the poem is a big farewell. The speaker is going somewhere, and it's not clear where (here's hoping it's Vegas). He makes it seem like he won't be back for a while; he says farewell twice, then says he will come again, even if he has to walk ten thousand miles. The concluding farewell makes the poem just a little bit sad; after all, when people are in love it's never fun when one of them has to leave for a while. But we're holding out hope that the rumors are true—absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
Sure, it may be a love poem, but there's no steam to be found in "A Red, Red Rose."