A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

A Red, Red Rose book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download A Red, Red Rose Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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 center of the universe. A key discovery that prodded Enlightenment thinking along was Isaac Newton’s 1684 Laws of Motion, which included the theory of Universal Gravity that could explain events and physical actions just as clearly as referring to God’s divine will could. By the 1700s, writers and philosophers were expanding out from the idea that reason could explain the way the physical universe works. Since rational theory worked so well when applied to the physical universe, they decided that there was no reason that political and social interactions could not be explained with scientific equations in the same way. During the early part of the Enlightenment, writers, based mainly in France, faced social persecution for publishing ideas that challenged the reigning authorities. One of the key figures of the time was Voltaire, who was one of the most versatile writers of his time: his essays, plays, novels and poems supported the belief that neither the church nor the monarchy had any special knowledge of the world that people of ordinary intelligence could not attain. Another key figure was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who published his philosophical work The Social Contract in 1762: it supported the will of the people over the previouslyaccepted “divine rights” of the monarchy. Voltaire spent eleven months in the Bastille for his writings, and Rousseau was exiled from France. However, later thinkers, who were strongly influenced by the French thinkers, ended up having enormous impact on how society imagined itself. One example was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s 1781 book Critique of Pure Reason, which argued that moral choices must apply to all people at all times, thereby bringing the Enlightenment worship of logic to every decision a person makes. One of the results of the Age of Enlightenment was the American Revolution: the thinkers who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 did so believing the untested idea that people could rule themselves at least as well as monarchs could. The United States was structured on rationalist principles that derived from the Enlightenment. Following the War of Independence came the French Revolution, from 1789 to 1799: while the American Revolution established a new state according to democratic principles, the revolution in France reorganized an old, established state, taking power out of the hands of the aristocracy and trusting the common people’s ability to follow reason.

Overlapping with the Age of...

(The entire section is 1,995 words.)