Robert Burns, a poor man, an educated man, and a ladies’ man, is representative of Scotland, much like whisky, haggis, bagpipes, and kilts. He lived a life shortened by rheumatic heart disease, 1759-1796, but his life journey through poverty, informal education, disappointed love, nationalism, and literary and financial success can be identified by all Scots and common men the world over. He has become almost a national symbol of all things Scottish. His life is like a love story with a happy ending.
The Poet, Robert Burns
Robert Burns’s family raised seven children on sparse, rented farmland on the west coast of Scotland. The family cottage still stands as a proud tourist attraction. The family farm was not successful and the family moved from farm to farm. Life on the farm in western Scotland was harsh and Robert worked long hours with his father.
Burn’s father recognized the value of education and he managed to hire a local teacher to tutor Robert. He was an extremely bright student, mastering Shakespeare, current poets, French, Latin, philosophy, politics, geography, theology, and mathematics. His father read the Bible during the evenings around the cottage fireplace and Robert became an expert on the Bible and a devout Church member.
Robert Burns wrote his first poem at age 15. The poem was called “Handsome Nell” and was about his first love for a girl named Nellie Blair. Throughout his life, Burns was a charming and witty man, attracting the attention of numerous women. A dozen or more women can be identified as the inspiration for various poems. Burns wrote many famous love poems, including “A Red, Red Rose” and “One Fond Kiss.”
Here’s an excerpt from “Handsome Nell.”
“O once I loved a bonnie lass,
Aye, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I’ll love my handsome Nell.”
Burns, in a later comment on this poem, stated that he had “never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.”
The Turning Point
In 1786, at age 27, Robert Burns went through a major turning point in his life. He suffered a disappointing love affair with Jean Armour, who was pregnant with his twin sons. The local community and Armour’s father were outraged by the affair and her father rejected Burns’s offer of marriage.
Dejected and depressed, Burns made plans to leave Scotland and sail to Jamaica in the West Indies. To finance the trip, Burns submitted a volume of his poetry for publication.
The publication of 612 copies in a simple, unbound volume was called “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect,” also sometimes known as “The Kilmarnock Edition.” The poems were well received in Edinburgh by socialites who were enchanted by the poems and amazed that a poor farmer could write so well.
So, instead of planning his escape to a new world, Burns planned a trip to Edinburgh. His confident manner, ingratiating style, and his obvious wit and intelligence brought Burns popularity and admiration. Soon, a second publication of his work was executed in Edinburgh.
The Growing Popularity
During his stay in Edinburgh, Robert Burns met printer James Johnson, who planned a project to print all of the folk songs in Scotland. This project enthralled Burns and embarked upon a journey throughout Scotland to collect as many folk songs as possible. Burns collected over 300 songs and wrote a few himself, including “A Red, Red Rose.”
One of the results of his travels throughout Scotland was that Robert Burns ingratiated himself to everyone he met and he rose to national prominence and popularity.
The collected songs were published by Johnson in six volumes and by George Thomson in a five volume set.
Another happy outcome of this turning point in Robert Burns’s life is that he was able to return home and marry his beloved Jean Armour, now with the blessing of her family.
Robert Burns continued to collect and write songs for The Scots Musical Museum, an anthology of traditional Scottish lyrical poems, until his untimely death from rheumatic heart disease in 1796.
Within a few years of his death groups of Robert Burns’s friends and fans gathered to promote his memory and to celebrate his life. By 1801, five years after his death, groups met on the anniversary of his death, but later they began to meet on the anniversary of his birth, January 25. Now there are many Burns clubs and societies who celebrate his memory with dinners, including haggis, and readings of his works.
The Poem, “A Red, Red Rose”
One of the most famous songs that Robert Burns wrote for this project and first published in 1794 was “A Red, Red Rose.” Burns wrote it as a traditional ballad, four verses of four lines each.
“A Red, Red Rose” begins with a quatrain containing two similes. Burns compares his love with a springtime blooming rose and then with a sweet melody. These are popular poetic images and this is the stanza most commonly quoted from the poem.
The second and third stanzas become increasingly complex, ending with the metaphor of the “sands of life,” or hourglass. One the one hand we are given the image of his love lasting until the seas run dry and the rocks melt with the sun, wonderfully poetic images. On the other hand Burns reminds us of the passage of time and the changes that result. That recalls the first stanza and its image of a red rose, newly sprung in June, which we know from experience will change and decay with time. These are complex and competing images, typical of the more mature Robert Burns.
The final stanza wraps up the poem’s complexity with a farewell and a promise of return.
“A Red, Red Rose” is written as a ballad with four stanzas of four lines each. Each stanza has alternating lines of four beats, or iambs, and three beats. The first and third lines have four iambs, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah. The second and fourth lines consist of three iambs. This form of verse is well adapted for singing or recitation and originated in the days when poetry existed in verbal rather than written form.
A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns
O my luve's like a red, red rose.
That's newly sprung in June;
O my luve's like a melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will love 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 weel my only Luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!