The central metaphors in “A Red, Red Rose” are time and love. Burns uses a series of images and concepts that describe love's delicacy and fragility in time. In other words, love and beauty are fragile because they exist in time. However, Burns also describes love that sustains over great periods of time, so long that perhaps love itself is eternal. Paralleling this temporary/eternal duality of time is the duality of the word “luve” which represents both his lover and the abstract quality of love. A person has a limited amount of time in life but love, and perhaps his love's soul, transcend the limitations of time.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes his love like a melody and like a “red, red rose.” A melody, prior to the technology of recording, exists for a limited amount of time. And the rose is “newly sprung” and the repetition of the word red implies that the rose is at its peak, its most vibrant. Thus, the rose will necessarily wilt and die and the life of a flower is relatively short. The first stanza describes his love as full of passion, but temporary.
In the second stanza, the speaker says he will love her until the seas go dry. This is something that seems like it could never occur in a million years and yet it could occur. This introduces the idea that his love can last for an indeterminable amount of time: still temporary but nearly eternal.
In the third stanza, this “nearly eternal” idea continues but it closes with “the sands of life,” reintroducing the limited time of life. Here, love is that which will endure while the speaker is alive or while “his love” is alive.
In the last stanza, the metaphor shifts from time to distance. The speaker says he will return and cover a great but quantifiable distance. Again, he is playing with the concept of limit and limitlessness regarding the temporary and perhaps eternal life of love.