A Red, Red Rose

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A Red, Red Rose

by Robert Burns

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.


A Red, Red Rose is a ballad poem, intended to be set to music, and it is comprised of four, four-line stanzas, with each stanza abiding by an ABAB rhyme scheme. It is one of Scotland’s most famous and beloved poems.

The subject matter of the poem is an expression of love, by a Speaker, to his beloved “lass.” The final stanza indicates that the Speaker is setting off on a voyage, though he does intend to return. For more on the very famous poem, we turn to Wiki:

A Red, Red Rose” is a 1794 song in Scots by Robert Burns based on traditional sources. The song is also referred to by the title “(Oh) My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” and is often published as a poem. Many composers have set Burns’ lyric to music, but it gained worldwide popularity set to the traditional tune “Low Down in the Broom”

In the final years of his short life, Burns worked extensively on traditional Scottish songs, ensuring the preservation of over 300 songs, including “Auld Lang Syne“. He collaborated with James Johnson on a folk music collection called the Scots Musical Museum (published in six volumes between 1787-1803). Burns also contributed to George Thomson’s five-volume A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (1793–1841).

Burns intended “A Red, Red Rose” to be published in Thomson’s collection. In 1794, he wrote to Alexander Cunningham that he and Thomson disagreed on the song’s merits, “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.”

At the time, Thomson’s publishing project was rivaled by the Italian musician Pietro Urbani who called his anthology A Selection of Scots Songs. Burns and Urbani spent three days together in 1793, collaborating on various songs. Burns recalls, “I likewise gave (Urbani) a simple old Scots song which I had pickt up in this country, which he had promised to set in a suitable manner. I would not even have given him this, had there been any of Mr Thomson’s airs, suitable to it, unoccupied.” Urbani began to boast of a partnership with Burns on the Scots Songs anthology. Burns called this a “damned falsehood”, and ended their friendship.

Nevertheless, Urbani was the first to press with “A Red, Red Rose” in 1794, publishing it in the second book of his anthology. In his book, Urbani coyly refers to Burns without naming him, “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.

Burns is best understood as a compiler or a redactor of “A Red, Red Rose” rather than its author. F.B. Snyder wrote that Burns could take “childish, inept” sources and turn them into magic, “The electric magnet is not more unerring in selecting iron from a pile of trash than was Burns in culling the inevitable phrase or haunting cadence from the thousands of mediocre possibilities.”

One source that is often cited for the song is a Lietenant Hinches’ farewell to his sweetheart, which Ernest Rhys asserts is the source for the central metaphor and some of its best lines. Hinches’ poem, “O fare thee well, my dearest dear”, bears a striking similarity to Burns’s verse, notably the lines which refer to “ten thousand miles” and “Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear”.

A ballad originating from the same period entitled “The Turtle Dove” also contains similar lines, such as “Though I go ten thousand mile, my dear” and “Oh, the stars will never fall down from the sky/Nor the rocks never melt with the sun”. Of particular note is a collection of verse dating from around 1770, The Horn Fair Garland, which Burns inscribed, “Robine Burns aught this buik and no other”. A poem in this collection, “The loyal Lover’s faithful promise to his Sweet-heart on his going on a long journey” also contains similar verses such as “Althou’ I go a thousand miles” and “The day shall turn to night, dear love/And the rocks melt in the sun”.

An even earlier source is the broadside ballad “The Wanton Wife of Castle-Gate: Or, The Boat-mans Delight”, which dates to the 1690s. Midway through the ballad, Burns’ first stanza can be found almost verbatim: “Her Cheeks are like the Roses, that blossoms fresh in June; O shes like some new-strung Instrument thats newly put in tune.” The provenance for such a song is likely medieval.

To hear a beautiful musical version of the famous Scottish poem, listen to the embedded video below:

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