“A Red, Red Rose,” also titled in some anthologies according to its first line, “O, my luve is like a red, red rose,” was written in 1794 and printed in 1796. The song may be enjoyed as a simple, unaffected effusion of sentiment, or it may be understood on a more complex level as a lover’s promises that are full of contradictions, ironies, and paradoxes. The reader should keep in mind the fact that Burns constructed the poem, stanza by stanza, by “deconstructing” old songs and ballads to use parts that he could revise and improve. For example, Burns’s first stanza may be compared with his source, “The Wanton Wife of Castle Gate”: “Her cheeks are like the roses/ That blossom fresh in June;/ O, she’s like a new-strung instrument/ That’s newly put in tune.” Clearly, Burns’s version is more delicate, while at the same time audaciously calculated. By emphasizing the absolute redness of the rose—the “red, red rose”—the poet demonstrates his seeming artlessness as a sign of sincerity. What other poet could rhyme “June” and “tune” without appearing hackneyed? With Burns the very simplicity of the language works toward an effect of absolute purity.
Readers who analyze the poem using the tools of New Criticism or other twentieth century critical approaches will observe, on the other hand, contradictory elements that seem to work against the speaker’s innocent protestations of love. The first two lines of the second stanza do not complete an expected (or logical) thought: “So deep in luve am I” (that I cannot bear to leave my beloved). Instead, the speaker rhetorically protests his love through a series of preposterous boasts. His love will last until the seas go dry, until rocks melt with the sun; he will continue to love while the sands of life (in an hourglass) shall run. Yet so steadfast a lover, after all, is departing from his beloved, not staying by her side. For whatever reason, he is compelled to leave her rather than remain. His final exaggerated promise, that he will return to her, though the journey takes a thousand miles, seems farfetched, even ironically humorous: Instead of such a titanic effort, why should he not simply stay with her?
These paradoxical reflections, however, which change a reading of the poem from one of “pure” lyric to one of irony, are not so difficult to reconcile on the level of common sense. What lover has not exaggerated his or her emotions? Are these exaggerated promises of Burns’s speaker any less sincere for being illogical? No matter how the reader resolves this issue, he or she cannot help but admire Burns’s art in revising the meter of his source for the last stanza, an old song titled “The True Lover’s Farewell”: “Fare you well, my own true love/ And fare you well for a while,/ And I will be sure to return back again/ If I go ten thousand mile.” Although Burns’s revisions are minor, they reveal the difference in technique between a merely competent poet and a master.