A Short Analysis of Robert Burns’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘O my Luve is like a red, red rose’ is one of the most famous similes in all of poetry, one of the most recognisable opening lines, and one of the best-known romantic lines. Yet its true origins are a little less straightforward than we might think (did Robert Burns even write it?), so it’s worth subjecting ‘A Red, Red Rose’ to some closer scrutiny and analysis.

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

So 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.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

As Salvador Dali said, the first person to compare the cheeks of a beautiful woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot. And many people – poets and idiots, or both – have repeated the idea of a beautiful beloved being as fresh and pretty as a ‘red, red rose’.

And let’s be honest: the emphasis in ‘My love’s like a red, red rose’ is on the poet’s beloved being beautiful, ‘bonnie’, ‘fair’, and so on. We learn nothing else about her: she exists purely as an object of beauty who inspires great love and devotion in the poet.

But who is ‘the poet’ here? Robert Burns? Well, this is where things get interesting. ‘My Love’s Like a Red, Red Rose’ is one of the most widely anthologised love poems in English, but Robert Burns may have been writing down (and adapting) an existing folk song by that prolific author, ‘Anon’.

Like another of Burns’s most famous poems, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘A Red, Red Rose’ may not have been written by Robert Burns: only written down by him.

Certainly, the poem reads like a song: it’s a lyric, through and through, with the abcb rhyme scheme and the tetrameter and trimeter metre recalling the traditional ballads (associated, fittingly enough, with the Scottish Borders).

And ‘A Red, Red Rose’ has had an impact on modern popular music: Bob Dylan called it his single biggest inspiration. And did the final two lines inspire The Proclaimers to write ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’? One cannot choose but wonder.