Poetry: Burns – A Red, Red Rose

Robert Burns was a character. One of my favorite of the Romantic poets, he took romanticism a little too seriously than was appropriate. And though he did eventually settle down, I tend to find poems like “A Red, Red Rose” somewhat ironic.

“As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.”

A Red, Red Rose. Robert Burns

So deep, Burns, so very deep. And did you tell this to every woman you had an affair with? This poem, or rather, Burns and the Romantics, reminds me of this passage from Shakespeare:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
    Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never.

Much Ado About Nothing

And yet, this is one of my favorite poems from Burns. There is some question as to whether or not he actually wrote the poem. It seems very likely that he actually got most of the words and the tune to go with it from an old Scottish ballad. And perhaps that is why I enjoy it so much. For here, Burns did two things: He preserved the Scots language, and he preserved the past for those yet to come. I love both of those things, both as a hobby etymologist and a lover of history. If you look at the entire poem, you will notice that the spelling is not standard American English. Instead, read the poem with a bit of a lilt, and perhaps you’ll sound a bit more like what Burns intended. (Actually, you’ll probably sound closer to 16th century English, but you get the idea.) Even so, I love what we find here. You get a beautiful poem, a Scottish Ballad, and a language preserved until now.

What’s more, this is actually a beautiful love song. It tells a tale, a moment, of new love. A love red, burning, and young. It is sweet til bursting. And even if it is a fleeting love, as described in the second verse, it is also true. He is enamored with her beauty. Nothing is more fair than her, and thus, he loves nothing as much as her. It is an encompassing love, an endless love. For who has ever heard of all the seas drying up, and how long until the earth’s rocks are consumed in fire! And though he goes away, she has no fear of his love ending. Not only has he promised to come back, he has already explained how passionate, how entire, how enduring his love is.

But as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m not sure Burns was quite so faithful as he recorded here. Still, this is the sort of poem we want read to us, and it is one I love to sing. It will always bring back memories of playing guitar on the riverside of campus, and it will always make me smile at the irony of the poet himself.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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