Simplicity in A Red Red Rose
I have seen readers bulldoze through Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose” in thirty seconds, or however long it takes to sift all of the letters through their visual screen, and then sit back and say they know it. A bad sign is when, asked to explain it, they start with, “It’s just …” or “All he’s saying is …,” to prepare the listener for the fact that there isn’t much to be said. I don’t know why anyone thinks poetry is something to be understood as quickly as it is read. I do know that sometimes students are forced to read something they do not like, and so want to get the whole experience over as quickly as possible, but if I were them I would be very, very surprised to find a poem that had no secrets, that presented all that it was about to the naked eye. I must admit, though, that Robert Burns, of all poets, tends to make us feel that there is no mystery beneath the surface of his work, and of all his poems “A Red, Red Rose” does the most to make readers feel that they are going over material they already know.
If you are old enough to read, and you grew up in the Anglicized world or have lived long enough in it, then you have either come in contact with Robert Burns’s work or have at least encountered some source influenced by it. Poems that might ring a bell include: John Barleycorn: A Ballad,” “John Anderson, My Jo,” “Coming Thro’ the Rye” (from which J. D. Salinger took the title of his novel The Catcher In The Rye), “Tam o Shanter,” and “To A Mouse” (from which John Steinbeck took the title of his novel Of Mice and Men). On New Year’s Eve, as the clock reached the stroke of midnight, you might have sung some form of the traditional folk song “Auld Lang Syne”—perhaps even the rendition that Robert Burns set down in print as a poem. These examples, a mere speck in Burns’s canon of hundreds of poems and songs, point to several of the major reasons why Burns is so familiar today. First, other writers quote him often. He was a fun writer who enjoyed using words cleverly, and he was a man of the people and not of the intellectual establishment, and these are both traits that writers often admire and emulate. Second, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that so much of Burns’s writing was taken, either in whole or in part, from songs that had already been around Scotland for years. In those days before copyright law had reached to such diverse forms of intellectual property as songs, popular music was spread by being heard and repeated, for hundreds of years sometimes. If Burns heard a set of lyrics he liked he would write them down, modifying them as he saw fit. In this way he became, not just an important writer in Scottish history, but an integral thread in the weave of Scottish culture. Unlike most authors whose works spawn forward from their time, Burns’s poems stretch in both directions, future and past, from the poet himself. The third element to Burns’s popularity was his use of the Scottish dialect. This stylistic tendency is often a source of trouble and vexation for non-Scottish readers, who have to slow down their reading with frequent trips to the glossary or dictionary, but it has cemented his eternal popularity among Scots. The love of his fellow citizens is so powerful that it is felt beyond the nation’s borders and throughout the world.
“A Red, Red Rose,” one of Burns’s most popular and most anthologized works, actually has the opposite effect on students than his reputation does. Readers may find themselves to be more familiar with the poet’s works in general than they had realized, but they also find that the ideas in this poem are not as familiar as they first seem. The poem is a declaration of love, particularly a vow, upon the occasion of leaving, to keep love alive. It is a situation that does not change throughout the ages, and so impatient readers tend to read this poem once and think that they understand all that it has to say....
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