Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“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...
(The entire section is 517 words.)
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Lines 1-2: The reader may be already familiar with the poem’s much-quoted first line. Its appeal over time probably stems from the boldness of its assertion— the speaker’s love conveyed through the conventional image of the rose and through the line’s four strong beats. The poet’s choice of a rose may at first seem trite, and the color “red” may seem too obvious a symbol of love and passion. Yet if the comparison between the beloved and the rose verges on cliché, a careful reading reveals the subtler ways in which the speaker expresses his conviction. Why, for instance, is the word “red” repeated? The answer might be found in the second line. While red is the expected hue of the flower, the repetition of the adjective represents the fullest and most lovely manifestation of the rose: its ideal state. Such also is the nature of the speaker’s love. “Newly sprung,” it exists in its purest and most perfect state—none of its vitality has faded; time has not scarred it with age or decay. Yet this embodiment of love is a temporary one. Like the rose, which can exist in this lush form only “in June,” the speaker’s feelings and his beloved’s beauty cannot remain frozen in time: they, like all other forms of beauty, are passing.
Lines 3-4: Perhaps it is the speaker’s recognition of the rose’s brief beauty that compels him to pursue another metaphor for his love. This time he chooses to compare her to a lovely...
(The entire section is 798 words.)