A Red, Red Rose Themes
Love and Passion
Because modern readers are well familiar with the poetic imagery that Burns uses in this poem, and also because “A Red, Red Rose” was originally written to be sung as popular music, some of the poem’s impact may be lost to the contemporary audience. The poem expresses love, but it does not try to stir up deep feelings of passion—instead, it reminds readers of love, making the speaker’s feelings sound more theoretical than real. In the first stanza, the word “Luve” is used twice as a pronoun, describing a particular person that the speaker has in mind. By talking about this person, the poet draws attention to the other person and to how he relates to that person, rather than examining his own emotions. This raises the impression that the love affair might be more for show, for the approval of other people, than for the experience of it. In the first half of stanza 2, the poem actually says that the amount that the speaker is in love can be measured by how fair the woman is. There is a simpler reading, that because his love is great her fairness (or beauty) must be great too, but it is clearly implied that if she were now or were to become less beautiful then his love would diminish. Lines 7 and 11 both contain promises that this poem’s speaker makes to his lover. The problem, however, is that his promises are exaggerated, made in over-inflated terms that are common among passionate young lovers but are difficult to take seriously. His claim that he will still love her when the seas dry up and the sun melts rocks, or until the sands stop flowing, may or may not be true: no one will be around to see these events, so who would ever know? The final stanza mirrors the first in its use of “my Luve,” but this time the phrase is directed directly to the lover. It is here that the speaker makes a specific claim: that he is leaving now, but that he will come back. Given the overexaggeration that precedes it, readers are invited to question his commitment to love and to question whether, once he is out of sight of her beauty, he will be as committed to her as he says he will.
“A Red, Red Rose” seeks to strike a balance between the temporary and the eternal. It starts with images of things that last for only a short time and then are gone. Any flower can be used by poets to remind readers of the fact that beauty is fleeting, because the life of a flower is so short when compared to human life. Flowers are often used to remind us of the interconnection of life and death because of their quick succession of budding, blossoming, and wilting. In this poem, the flower that Burns uses is especially short-lived: it is not just red but a red, red rose. A flower can only stay at its peak brightness for a short time. It is newly sprung; it is presented in June, hinting at the fate that awaits it in the autumn. Similarly, the “melodie” used to describe the lover is another image of fleeting time. This sense would have been clearer to readers in the 1700’s, a time before recording equipment, when any rendition of a song could only occur once, to be imitated later perhaps but never reproduced exactly. Melodies, like moments, evaporate into the air and become history.
These initial examples of the ways time constantly passes are in conflict with the poem’s main claim. By the time they have finished with “A Red, Red Rose,” readers are left with the impression that Burns is talking about love as being eternal, not fleeting. In the third stanza he claims that his love will outlast events that will take more time than humans could even imagine: seas going dry, rocks melting in the sun, etc. In the end he claims he will love her after traveling ten thousand miles, which, we assume would have to take place by horseback or sailing ship at a laborious pace. The conflicting images of love as fleeting and also measured by...
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