Study Guide

A Red, Red Rose Analysis

By Robert Burns

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "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.

  • Setting

    Rural Scotland

    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.

  • Speaker

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    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.

  • Calling Card

    Strange Scottish Words

    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.

  • Form and Meter

    Ballad and Common Meter (alternative iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter)

    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.

    Slow Jamz with Robert Burns

    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.

    A line of iambic tetrameter consists of four (tetra-) iambs, a foot that contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Line 5 is a great example: As fair art thou, my bonn-ie lass.

    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?

    Ballad Versus Common: The Battle of the (18th) Century

    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?

  • Nature

    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?

    • Lines 1-2: The speaker compares his love to a red, red rose. And because he uses the word "like," this is a simile.
    • Lines 7-8: The speaker says he will love his bonnie lass until the seas dry up. The evaporation of the "seas" appears to be a metaphor for the end of the world or for something that can't ever really happen. So really he's just avowing his undying, eternal, everlasting (and other cheesy things) love for his special friend.
    • Lines 9-10: The speaker mentions the seas going dry again, and adds that he will also love his "bonnie lass" until the "rocks melt w' the sun." Melting rocks are also a metaphor for the end of the world, or for something that isn't likely to happen.
  • 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.

    • Lines 1-2: Here it is, the most famous love simile ever. Or it's at least in the top five, right? The speaker's comparison of his love to a red, red, rose has gone down in history as pure romance.
    • Lines 3-4: The speaker says his love is like a "melodie" that's "play'd in tune." Since he uses the word "like," this comparison is a simile. Yep, another one.
    • Lines 5-6: The speaker says he is as "deep in love" as his "bonnie lass" is "fair." Since the word "as" occurs in this comparison, this is also a simile.
    • Lines 7-8: the speaker says he will love his "bonnie lass" until the seas dry up; the evaporation of the "seas" is a metaphor for the end of the world—you know, something that can never happen (zombie apocalypses aside).
    • Lines 11-12: The speaker will be all about his lady love, at least while the "sands o' life shall run." "Sands of life" is a metaphor; one's time on earth is compared to something like an hourglass that has sand in it to measure time.
    • Lines 13-16: The speaker says farewell, and tells his "Luve" that he will return for her, even if he has to walk ten thousand miles.
  • Farewell

    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.

    • Line 13: The speaker says, "fare thee weel" to his "bonnie lass." Wait, where you goin', dude?
    • Line 14: The speaker says, "fare thee weel again." Talk about the long goodbye.
    • Lines 15-16: The speaker says he will come again, even if he has to walk ten thousand miles. Never mind the state of him when he gets there.
  • Steaminess Rating


    Sure, it may be a love poem, but there's no steam to be found in "A Red, Red Rose."