Friday, 9 September 2011

Study guide on Burns 'A Red, Red Rose


The poem

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

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:

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

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

Origins of the song

Burns worked for the final ten years of his life on projects to preserve traditional Scottish songs for the future. In all, Burns had a hand in preserving over 300 songs for posterity, the most famous being "Auld Lang Syne". He worked on this project for James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803) and for George Thomson's five-volume A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. Burns had intended the work to be published as part of Thomson's selection. However, he wrote to a friend that Thomson and he disagreed on the merits of that type of song. "What to me appears to be the simple and the wild, to him, and I suspect to you likewise, will be looked on as the ludicrous and the absurd."[1]
Instead, Burns gave the song to Scots singer Pietro Urbani who published it in his Scots Songs. In his book, Urbani claimed the words of The Red Red Rose were obligingly given to him by a celebrated Scots poet, who was so struck by them when sung by a country girl that he wrote them down and, not being pleased with the air, begged the author to set them to music in the style of a Scots tune, which he has done accordingly.[2] In other correspondence, Burns referred to it as a "simple old Scots song which I had picked up in the country."[3]
The lyrics of the song are simple but effective. "My luve's like a red, red rose/That's newly sprung in June" describe a love that is both fresh and long lasting. David Daiches in his work describes Burns as "the greatest songwriter Britain has produced" for his work in refurbishing and improving traditional Scots songs including "Red, Red Rose" which he described as a "combination of tenderness and swagger."[4]

A Red, Red Rose: Introduction

After the 1786 publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Robert Burns spent the last ten years of his life collecting and editing songs for The Scots Musical Museum, an anthology intended to preserve traditional Scottish lyrical forms. During this time, Burns also composed more than three hundred original works for the volume, songs that relied heavily on forms and sentiments popular in the folk culture of the Scottish peasantry. “ A Red, Red Rose,” first published in 1794 in A Selection of Scots Songs, edited by Peter Urbani, is one such song. Written in ballad stanzas, the verse—read today as a poem—pieces together conventional ideas and images of love in a way that transcends the “low” or non-literary sources from which the poem is drawn. In it, the speaker compares his love first with a blooming rose in spring and then with a melody “sweetly play’d in tune.” If these similes seem the typical fodder for love-song lyricists, the second and third stanzas introduce the subtler and more complex implications of time. In trying to quantify his feelings—and in searching for the perfect metaphor to describe the “eternal” nature of his love—the speaker inevitably comes up against love’s greatest limitation, “the sands o’ life.” This image of the hour-glass forces the reader to reassess of the poem’s first and loveliest image: A “red, red rose” is itself an object of an hour, “newly sprung” only “in June” and afterward subject to the decay of time. This treatment of time and beauty predicts the work of the later Romantic poets, who took Burns’s work as an important influence.

A Red, Red Rose Summary

Lines 1-2: The reader may be already familiar with the poem’s much-quoted first line. Its appeal over time probably stems from the boldness of its assertion— the speaker’s love conveyed through the conventional image of the rose and through the line’s four strong beats. The poet’s choice of a rose may at first seem trite, and the color “red” may seem too obvious a symbol of love and passion. Yet if the comparison between the beloved and the rose verges on cliché, a careful reading reveals the subtler ways in which the speaker expresses his conviction. Why, for instance, is the word “red” repeated? The answer might be found in the second line. While red is the expected hue of the flower, the repetition of the adjective represents the fullest and most lovely manifestation of the rose: its ideal state. Such also is the nature of the speaker’s love. “Newly sprung,” it exists in its purest and most perfect state—none of its vitality has faded; time has not scarred it with age or decay. Yet this embodiment of love is a temporary one. Like the rose, which can exist in this lush form only “in June,” the speaker’s feelings and his beloved’s beauty cannot remain frozen in time: they, like all other forms of beauty, are passing.
Lines 3-4: Perhaps it is the speaker’s recognition of the rose’s brief beauty that compels him to pursue another metaphor for his love. This time he chooses to compare her to a lovely melody from a.

In this guide to 'O my love is like a red, red rose', I'll assume that this Robert Burns song is sung by a man:

Lines 1&2 verse 1:

O, my luve is like a red, red rose,              luve = love (sounds as English ‘love’)
That's newly sprung in June.

A song of similes and metaphors on 'love'; some of which are not that jaw-droppingly good in isolation. Let's face it, the first two lines could be straight out of a valentine's card. But these words married to the traditional melody become a little masterpiece of a song; a concise description of true love.

In fact, as the song progresses, the quality of its 'love comparisons' grows as much as the 'depth of the love' described in the song itself as it progresses. Throughout the song, the expanse of the love 'grows' as the expanse of the similes and metaphors 'grow'..

And this is key to the full impact of the song.

His ' feelings of love' are compared to a flower (a red rose). In the bigger picture (which will come later in the song) the newly sprung rose is a tiny, new and fragile thing dependent on nature for its own short period of survival. Beautiful but vulnerable...and will perish...eventually...But this 'new' rose reflects the fresh emotion, beauty and excitement of the first stages of tender love blossoming.

And/Or He is describing the 'actual woman' he loves and comparing her to a rose etc.

A vowel rhyme 'newly' and 'June' (closed 'intimate' vowels)

Lines 3&4 verse 1:

O, my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
His ‘feelings of love’ are compared to a melody, a more permanent fixture which can be replayed and explored over and over...and can survive by its own sweetness if cherished and looked after (in tune).

(You could interpret it as being 'the' melody of this tune i.e. My love is like a red, red rose).

And/Or He is describing the 'actual woman' he loves and comparing her to a melody etc.
Lines 1&2 verse 2:

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,    bonie lass = lovely, pretty girl  
So deep in luve am I,
Lines 3&4 verse 2:

And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.           gang = go
I'll translate just in case:

‘I am as much in love with you as you are beautiful’

This the first mention of the 'lass' he loves:

a love which is still vulnerable and has some superficiality still there.

(I've never been too fussed on the sentiment of that line, but the words sing beautifully)

The vowels are starting to open up: 'As' 'Fair' 'art' 'thou' 'lass' 'am' 'I'

And then, like sunshine through the clouds as if he has looked her in the eye/face and suddenly realised... I .. will .. still .. be .. loving .. you .. until .. the .. seas .. 'go .. dry'.

We are suddenly confronted with a love much more substantial and 'everlasting'. And, just to make sure we've taken that in, the line is repeated as the first line of the third verse. As if 'he' himself has also just taken in the sheer amount and depth of the love involved.

Worth mentioning I think: Till a' the seas. The a' instead of 'all' (but same vowel sound) sounds like the word 'awe' (I'm hoping that's deliberate!)

and the open vowels 'a' 'gang dry'
'and the rocks melt wi' the sun' (gorgeous!)

(It's in the right order too i.e. The sea would 'go dry' before the 'rocks (would in theory) melt with the sun' !

....and still the love grows....!

Lines 1&2 verse 3:

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun!          wi’ = with
The song now comes back down to earth a little as the promise of love 'while the sands o' life shall run' starts to involve some commitment before it gets too carried away in its own similes and metaphors:

We now have his promise of love and how it will endure whatever ‘the sands of life’ will inevitably throw at him.

It's a nice use of the word 'still' taken both as 'no matter what' and also 'still' as in 'calm' and helps to highlight a more warm, settled centring in the promise of his love for her.

Lines 3&4 verse 3:

And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
verse 4:

And fare thee weel, my only luve,
And fare thee weel, a while!       a while = for a while
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!    Tho’ = though (even if)
Then the tender 'farewell' scene. As in the beginning of the song, the situation is 'smaller' and more intimate and one to one: 'my 'only' love'. And the promise that nothing will stop his return.

And indeed a little bit of gentle humour: 'not even ten thousand miles will stop me' ! (exclamation mark!) at the end. An indication of what he himself will go through to be there for her.

As pointed out also in the guide to 'Ye banks and braes' Burns uses a lot of the word 'and' at the beginnings of lines and in this song (Red, red rose) this has the effect of the love growing and growing, moving forward, each line an extension of the line before rather than qualifying it. 'And' provides the momentum for the love description to expand and move on to bigger and better things, taking the song forward with tension and excitement.

Some of the imagery is also fairly 'arid': dried up seas, rocks melting with the sun, sands o' life. This may be intentional on the part of Burns to highlight and contrast the 'lushness' of the 'love'.

My personal preference is that the 'O' is missed out at the beginning of lines one and three.

This song can be sung by either male or female (with a change to 'lad' instead of 'lass').

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