Robert Burns is often considered a writer ahead of his time, who often embraced the idea of using common language to reach the common person just slightly before this idea became popularized as the Age of Romanticism swept across the globe. When Burns published “A Red, Red Rose” in 1794, the Age of Enlightenment was dwindling to an end. As with all historical ages, there is no definitive way of measuring the beginning or the end of the Enlightenment— historians can’t point to an exact moment when people across the earth agreed to adopt a set of beliefs, or when they stopped believing— but the term is useful in measuring the prevailing mood of the time. As far back as the 1500s, scientists and philosophers began to believe that it was possible to understand how the universe works by establishing laws and principles: they turned from the religious explanations that were provided by the church to scientific explanations that were supported by reason. Today, people take for granted the idea that scientific inquiry should be conducted according to reason, but in the sixteenth century, nearly two hundred years before Burns’s time, the idea was new and bold and slightly dangerous. The theory that Earth orbits the sun, which was first put forth by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 and later supported by Galileo, was opposed by the powerful Catholic church, which sentenced Galileo to life imprisonment for suggesting that God did not place humans at the...
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“A Red, Red Rose” is written in four four-line stanzas, or quatrains, consisting of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines. This means that the first and third lines of each stanza have four stressed syllables, or beats, while the second and fourth lines have three stressed syllables. Quatrains written in this manner are called ballad stanzas. The ballad is a old form of verse adapted for singing or recitation, originating in the days when most poetry existed in spoken rather than written form. The typical subject matter of most ballads reflects folk themes important to common people: love, courage, the mysterious, and the supernatural. Though the ballad is generally rich in musical qualities such as rhythm and repetition, it often portrays both ideas and feelings in overwrought but simplistic terms.
The dominant meter of the ballad stanza is iambic, which means the poem’s lines are constructed in two-syllable segments, called iambs, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. As an example of iambic meter, consider the following line from the poem with the stresses indicated:
That’s sweet / ly play’d / in tune.
This pattern exists most regularly in the trimeter lines of the poem, lines which most often finish the thoughts begun in the previous line. The rhythm’s regularity gives the poem a balanced feel that enhances its musical sound.
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Compare and Contrast
1786: Farmers in Massachusetts, burdened by the debt of the Revolutionary War, participated in Shays’ Rebellion in order to protest against having to pay the colonial government with cash. The rebellion was fairly small-scale— rebels broke up a session of the state Supreme Court and tried unsuccessfully to take the state arsenal—but symbolically it was reminiscent of the uprising against oppression that led to the foundation of the country. The rebellion was one of the most glaring proofs that the Articles of Confederation that then governed the United States were inadequate: the following year the Constitution was drafted.
1990s: Twenty-seven amendments have been added to the Constitution, representing very little change needed in a document written over two hundred years ago.
1786: Inventor Ezekiel Reed developed a machine that could produce nails. Previously, all buildings were held together with wooden pegs or handmade nails.
1990s: The world’s tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, stand at 1,483 feet each.
1786: The first public golf club in the United States was opened in Charleston, South Carolina. The game had been popular in Scotland since the 15th Century.
1990s: There are private golf courses with high membership fees, but the game of golf has been embraced by the general public in the United States, and public courses abound....
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Topics for Further Study
What do you think are the circumstances of the speaker of this poem that cause him/her to leave his/her love? Write a short story or dialogue that explains why the speaker is leaving, and how this poem affects the situation.
Look through magazines and find at least five examples of red things. Which do you think could be described as “red red”? Why?
Which of the symbols used to express love in this poem works the best? Why?
Adapt this ballad to the music of a contemporary song, and explain what elements of the music you think are appropriate to what the poem is saying.
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Scotland’s Burns Country: The Life and Landscape of Robert Burns. Video cassette. Lewiston, NY: Lapwing Productions. 1994.
Love Songs of Robert Burns. Video cassette. Phoenix, AZ: ELM Productions. 1991.
The Complete Songs of Robert Burns. Audio compact disc. Nashville, TN: Honest/Linn Records. 1996.
Redpath, Jean. The Songs of Robert Burns. Five audio cassettes. North Ferrisburg, VT: Philo. 1985.
Love Songs of Robert Burns. Audio cassette. Ocean City, NJ: Musical Heritage Society. 1991.
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What Do I Read Next?
The definitive collection of Scottish ballads, of which Burns is considered the master, is Francis James Childs’s collection the English and Scottish Popular Ballads. It was originally published by Houghton Mifflin in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898. In 1965 Dover Publications issued a condensed five-volume reprint.
In 1971 Greenwood Press reprinted the famous multi-volume Scottish Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, first published in 1896. The editor, George Eyre-Todd, has assembled the best writings of Burns and his contemporaries, many of whom are not familiar to modern audiences.
Thomas Carlyle was a famous Scottish historian from the generation after Burns (he was born in 1795: Burns died in 1796). Carlyle’s booklength essay on Burns might seem a bit too complex for some modern readers, but, remembering the time it came from, it is a helpful piece for putting the poet in historical perspective. The essay was printed as An Essay on Burns in 1910 by Charles E. Merrill Co., and has appeared in several different formats since.
A handy reference, written for contemporary students, that puts Burns’s ballads in historical perspective is The Penguin Book of Ballads, edited by Geoffrey Grigson and published in 1975.
The University of Iowa Press published a collection of essays in 1997 called Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, consisting of eleven essays by literary critics about...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Crawford, Thomas, Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Daiches, David, “The Identity of Burns,” in Restoration and Eighteenth Century Literature: Essays in Honor of Alan Dugald McKillop, edited by Carroll Camden, The University of Chicago Press, 1963, pp. 323-40.
Fitzhugh, Robert, Robert Burns, The Man and the Poet: A Round, Unvarnished Account, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.
Smith, Iain Crichton, “The Lyrics of Robert Burns,” in The Art of Robert Burns, edited by R. S. Jack and Andrew Noble, Vision Press, 1982, pp. 22-35.
Snyder, Franklyn Bliss, Robert Burns: His Personality, His Reputation and His Art, 1936, reprinted by Kennikat Press, 1970.
Hill, John C., The Love Songs and Heroines of Robert Burns, London: J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1961. Hill’s book gives a good sense of Burns the man and of his view of romance by exploring the poems that he wrote for particular women, with biographical background material.
Kinsley, James, ed., The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, volumes I—III, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. This is the most comprehensive collection of all that Burns wrote: three volumes, each more than 1500 pages, with extensive explanations and references given for each of the works.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Bentman, Raymond. Robert Burns. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Carruthers, Gerard. Robert Burns. Tavistock, Devon, England: Northcote House, 2006.
Crawford, Thomas. Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Daiches, David. Robert Burns and His World. London: Thames & Hudson, 1971.
Ferguson, John DeLancey. Pride and Passion: Robert Burns, 1759-1796. 1939. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.
Grimble, Ian. Robert Burns: An Illustrated Biography. New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1986.
Lindsay, John Maurice. The Burns Encyclopaedia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
McGuirk, Carol. Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
McGuirk, Carol, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Burns. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.
McIlvanney, Liam. Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell, 2002.
Stewart, William. Robert Burns and the Common People. New York: Haskell House, 1971.
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