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“A Red, Red Rose”, written by Robert Burns, is a four stanza poem, with four lines in each stanza. The poem begins with the conventional image of rose, a red rose, to represent love, and then it deviates into images like rocks and sands. Though it has all the qualities of a traditional ballad, it attains a very complex nature, deserving to be read in the context of modern interpretations, like the theory of deconstruction formulated by Derrida. This brief paper takes a look at the poem in order to discuss the important literary devices used in it.
In the first stanza the poet compares love to a rose and then to a sweet melody: “O MY Luve ‘s like a red, red rose …O my Luve ‘s like the melodie” (Burns). These images are conventional, but they also imply their opposite meanings. A rose has thorns as love is never without its thorny sides. Both the rose and the melody remind that they are short-lived, temporal, though sweet. Therefore, the poet’s intention is to foreground the element of time in love relationship and show the ambiguity inherent in it. In fact, the poet begins the poem in the conventional mode, but gradually deviates into the language of binary oppositions.
Burns further explains the intricacies of love in the second stanza by continuing to play with the theme of time. He is stressing on the depth of his love by asserting that his love will last till the seas go dry: “Till a’ the seas gang dry/ And the rocks melt wi’ the sun” (Burns). Though it is an impossible possibility, he wants to establish the desire for eternal love, knowing that the life of rose like the length of melody is temporal. The reality of love reminds the readers that in real life the opposite of what the poet says happens. Carrying his theme again into the third stanza, the poet exaggerates that his love will last till the rocks melt away or till the sands of life run: “I will luve thee still, my dear,/ While the sands o’ life shall run” (Burns). From familiar metaphors the poet moves away with metaphors like rocks and sands, which are not familiar. The irony implied here is that the lovers will not be there to witness such an eventuality, as rocks will never melt. Their nearness reminds the lovers of its opposite, of the inevitability of parting. Therefore, the lover promises to come back again, even if he travels ten thousand miles away.
The poet, apart from resorting to the metaphors like flower and melody, clearly depicts the process of time in nature by giving emphasis on the change of season, the inevitability of decay, and by showing that parting is also implicit in this process of transition. The human desire is to return to the beloved: “And I will come again, my Luve” (Burns). Thus the metaphors in the poem help the poet in establishing the complex nature of relationship. The transition of an image to the next image looks smooth, like the thought of red rose leading to the thought of melody, both very sweet to the lovers’ senses. It is only when the reader thinks of the binary opposition to which these images take them; the poem attains an extraordinary quality. Otherwise, it remains as an old ballad. In other words, one has to read the poem in the light of the various devices used by the poet.
The greatness of the poem is in its literariness. The alternating tetrameters and trimesters, with their four and three stressed syllables, add musical greatness to the poem. It was meant to be sung as popular music and love as its central theme meets the taste of the readers. It also reveals the irony of love at the end. Its ability to allow modern literary interpretation is its real success.
Burns, Robert. “A Red, Red Rose”. Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900.