A Red, Red Rose Questions and Answers
by Robert Burns

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What is the central metaphor in the poem "A Red, Red Rose?"

"A Red, Red Rose" uses a metaphor about the sands of time passing as its central metaphor. It indicates the ways that love will shift over the years, but remain the same The earlier imagery of the "red, red rose" is a simile.

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Robert Burns makes use of similes throughout the poem "A Red, Red Rose," using comparisons to nature to represent the durability and immensity of the speaker’s love.

The poem begins by saying outright that the speaker’s “Luve is like a red, red rose.” Although a single rose is fragile, the rose bush itself blooms every year. Thus, the speaker conveys the beauty of his love and its seeming fragility at times (when the rose petals fall), while at the same time conveying that though it might seem to abate, it will bloom again just as the rose bush does. Moreover, by repeating the word “red” twice, the poem also emphasizes the depth of his love.

From there, the poem compares his love to a melody, a tune. Again, this is a fleeting image and one of the few that does not draw on nature. A tune or a melody is played and then ends. However, just like the rose bush, the tune can be replayed over and over. These similes are in the first stanza when the love is “newly sprung” or young. Young love might seem to be fleeting and so the poet aptly uses these images in the first stanza.

However, moving on to the second stanza, the comparisons are to objects that are not only durable but also immeasurable, signifying the depth and durability of the poet’s love. So “deep” is the love that the poet will love his beloved until “the seas gang dry.” The imagery suggests immensity. The poet moves from a single rose or melody to the vastness of the seas.

This comparison is so important that the poet repeats it in the next stanza. The next few similes are to rocks, sun, and “sands o’life.” Rocks are hard and durable. We use the term “rock solid” to describe something that is meant to last, just as the poet’s love will last. The sun is also durable and reliable. Nevertheless, despite its strength, the rocks remain intact, just as the poet’s love remains intact. The sands of life represent the time the poet has, and his love will endure throughout.

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The central metaphor in the poem comes at the end of the third stanza, where the speaker refers to the "sands o' life". This metaphor compares our life on earth to the running sands of an hourglass. What Burns is doing here is to highlight the shortness of our lives. Just as the sand in the hourglass will soon run out, so too will our mortal existence. That being the case, the speaker's love, though passionate and intense, will also one day expire. All the more reason, then, for the speaker and his beloved to love one another while they can in the limited time they have left.

The message illustrated by the "sands o'life" metaphor mirrors that of the "red, red rose" simile. A rose, like the sand in an hourglass, is also destined to pass away before long. Though undoubtedly beautiful, like the speaker's love, it will one day wither away and die, no matter how much care and attention are lavished upon it.

The fleeting nature of the speaker's love gives it an added touch of poignance. The love between him and his beloved may be very passionate, intense, and lushly romantic, but like everything else on this earth it is ultimately not destined to last.

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"A Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns is a poem consisting of four quatrains expressing the narrator's love for a beloved. No specific details are given about either person, but the poem attempts to evoke the intensity of the narrator's feelings by using various figures of speech.

The first type of figure used in the poem is one of comparison. Literary theorists distinguish two types of comparison. Similes are comparisons using explicit comparative terms such as "like" or "as." Metaphors do not use explicit comparative terms. In the first stanza, the poet uses two similes, saying his love is "like a red, red rose" and "like the melody." As both of these comparisons use the word "like," they are similes, not metaphors.

In the second and third stanzas, the narrator emphasizes the durability of his love using the literary figure of hyperbole or exaggeration. He promises to love her "Till a’ the seas gang dry, ... And the rocks melt wi’ the sun." Since neither lover nor beloved would survive such events, this is an example of hyperbole. The poem concludes with a promise that he will return to his beloved no matter how far he travels or how long a period of time has elapsed, so long as he is still alive. This promise is a literal statement of his intentions and feelings, not a metaphor or comparison.

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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. 

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