At first glance, Robert Burns’ poem, “A Red Red Rose” is a pure love poem, but examining the literal content alongside the formal elements reveals a darker turn. This poem describes a private profession of love at a wedding. The groom sings, “O my luve’s like a red, red rose, / That’s newly sprung June; / O my luve’s like a melodie / That’s sweetly played in tune:” (l.1-4). In these lines it isn’t clear whether “my luve” is the bride (my luve), or a description of the way he loves her (my luve), but these lines reveal that the poet has lost the distinction between his art and his wife: she became his poetry. Both the metrical and rhyme schemes of the poem reinforce this all-encompassing love.
The rhyme scheme of this poem is abcb, a ballad rhyme. This form was originally sung and still carries a musical quality which is only reinforced by the meter: the odd numbered lines contain four metrical feet, and the even lines have three. This description of the form of the poem is necessary because it places the lovers in the setting of the poem while allowing the poet to focus solely on his bride and share his private vows. There is an odd number of beats in the line, so as the poet pauses to catch his breath in the even numbered lines of the poem, he twirls his bride. He is only sharing his promises when he is looking directly at her. For example, in the next stanza, “As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, / So deep in luve am I;” (twirl) “And I will love thee still my dear, / Till a’ the seas gang dry – ” (twirl) (l. 5-8). The italicized pieces of the words note the accented syllables. Note also the combination of an accented syllable and the strong punctuation at the end of the even numbered lines which emphasize that pause of breath where the lover increases his beloved’s anticipation of the completion of the rhyme (and likewise his promise) with the romantic twirl.
As beautiful as the opening stanzas of the poem are, there is also a darker turn to this scene. The poem contains sixteen lines, and a clear dramatic volta at the twelfth line, where the repeated allusions to the sea, sun and rocks reveal the lover’s occupation as a sailor, and one who has been called away on his wedding night to fulfil his latest voyage. Dragged away from the scene, he calls, “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!” (l. 12-16). At the volta, the rhyme scheme breaks from the more complex abcb to a more solemn abab. In addition, the word “fair” used in the second stanza used to describe the poet’s wife when he only had eyes and a mind for her has been transformed into “fare” as an admission of defeat, and another indicator of weather and travel as used in the term “wayfarer.” Most interestingly though, this poem could function as a sonnet, stopping after fourteen lines with a dramatically abrupt final couplet. But the poet adds two extra lines to the end of the poem as if to reassure his bride that he will return. The final lines of the poem read almost as if he is being dragged away from the ceremony and has managed to escape for just long enough to blow a final kiss to his beloved.