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 are thou, my bonie 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 weel, my only Luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!
About this poem
Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.
Colin Will on ‘A Red, Red Rose’:
This poem, especially in its song form, is very well known, but like some other good songs, there are underlying subtleties which can be missed in the malty spicy fumes of a Burns Supper.
When I was Librarian of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, I had a letter from a designer tasked with producing a set of commemorative Burns stamps. He wanted to be accurate. “Which species of rose was Burns writing about in the poem?” he asked me. A fascinating question which set off some extremely interesting research.
Many of today’s red rose cultivars are derived from Chinese rose species,but these original introductions were in 1798 at the earliest, and Burns’ 1794 song predates that.Which native rose would an 18th-century west coast ploughman see all around him? Rosa canina, the dog rose, is the obvious answer. But it’s pink, not red. And then I recalled that when they are in bud, the flowers are red. I’m satisfied in my own mind that Burns was writing about the vivid red buds of the dog rose, ‘newly sprung in June’. So when I read the poem I don’t see the big blowsy blossoms of today’s suburban gardens; I see tightly-folded red velvet lips in an Ayrshire hedgerow.
My second reaction to the poem is rooted in my geological training. The lines about all the seas going dry, and rocks melting with the sun, suggest to me that Burns must have had a grasp of what we now call ‘deep time’, of an almost infinite length of time through which his love, and the world, would last. Yet geology as a science was brand new at the time Burns was writing; this is a very modern poem. And where was his inspiration? I submit that he got these ideas either directly from James Hutton, the Berwickshire farmer sometimes called the ‘Father of Modern Geology’, or from Hutton’s friend Sir James Hall of Dunglass. The two men in a boat discovered the famous unconformity at Siccar Point, near where I live, where an ocean going dry formed a sandstone which was eroded and folded upright, then overlain after an unimaginable interval by another ocean, which also ran dry. Hutton and Hall were among the distinguished men and women of Edinburgh society we know Burns met during his time in the city.
Burns himself said that it was a simple old Scots song he had picked up in the country. I don’t believe that for a minute. Surely there is an echo of the man who wrote ‘The result of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,’* in this wonderful poem? I believe there is.
*James Hutton, The Theory of the Earth. 1785 (abstract), 1788 (Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh).
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