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Love and Roses

The words alone are cloyingly sweet, two categories so multiple they're almost meaningless.  Like "god," "woman," "man," and "love," each is an empire unto itself, poorly ruled. Each means a world of things. 


That plural aspect is what Robert Burns is up to in his poem "A Red, Red Rose." It's short, so I'll quote the whole thing (I've changed some of the words to reflect contemporary spellings):


O my Love is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Love is like the melody

That’s sweetly played in tune.


So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

So deep in love 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 love thee still, my dear,

While the sands o’ life shall run.


And fare thee well, my only love!

And fare thee well awhile!

And I will come again, my love,

Though it were ten thousand mile.




The work is a masterpiece in connotation, or figurative language. It does everything that mode does at its most complex, including offer something and simultaneously take it away.  It's an exemplar of contradiction. 


For decades I taught this apparently simple ballad as an intro to how not just connotative language but poetry in general works. As a discussion, we never really made it past the first line, which is to say the main metaphor; it lasted the entire hour-and-forty-five minute session, and it was spirited, even passionate, after a bit of a rough start. 


One student read the poem aloud, straight through, and we talked about it in general terms––briefly though, in part because students' comments were so treacly sweet. They almost always held forth conventionally, until I declared, jokingly but not, that what they said was so, so Hallmark. Nauseating really.


Then I wrote the word "red" on the board and asked for them to share any cultural resonances related to it they could think of. The expected came up––intense, hot, fiery––and passionate of course. I kept pushing them––I know you can do better!––and then the brainstorming got more interesting: bloody, interior, angry, rebellious, conservative, communist, redcoat, wounding, warlike, devastation. You get the idea. 


I acted as their scribe, filling two huge blackboards with referents associated with a single color, and once the juices started to flow, after a great many C'mon-you-can-do-betters, I ran out of board space to write on. I encouraged students to take a mental cell shot of their handiwork, then I erased the boards and replaced "red" with "rose."


Again the response was convention at first: pretty, fragrant, passionate––they loved the word passionate. After some prodding again we got to the good stuff: prickly, thorny, wounding, piercing, drop of blood on the finger, ephemeral, turns brown and dies, doesn't bloom often, conventional, Valentines, conventional Valentines, fake, fake-o, money, industry, growing industry, TV commercials, Flowers dot com, sickly sweet, expensive, capitalism; some offered vaginal. Once we got there I knew we were finally no longer in Kansas. 


Again, after twenty to thirty minutes, after I was sweating, my hand cramped from writing, I remarked that now they were prepared to read the poem with greater insight. So another student read it through, with vastly different results. Unlike the first time around, in which they said a man would love his girlfriend, fiancée, or wife until the end of time (it was almost always about a man's love for a woman), in the second go-round their comments were much more nuanced––and harsh. 


This guy's a big bullshitter! was a common response after the brainstorming, though never before it. He uses the word "love" too much. The man doth protest too much. He's saying whatever she wants to hear so he can get in her pants! They noticed in the second reading that he was leaving ("And fare thee well awhile!") but remarked it didn't say where. On a business trip? To war? Back to his wife?


He'll probably never see her again! was a common response. He wants to fuck her then get the fuck out––and never come back! He's slick! A snake! When I asked how they got that impression from the poem itself some remarked, Because look what he's promising her, to love until the oceans dry up and rocks melt, which is impossible. Like his so-called love.


I asked in the minutes remaining, after a truly spirited, and in some cases graphic and even vulgar discussion, So which lover of the many you've offered does the poem actually give us? No one was content with the Hallmark version any longer. They were thinking of roses that hurt, of thorns, blooms that turn brown and die, and easy words (the poet uses the word "love" seven times). So is it pure lech patrol then? I queried. They were unsure. 


The point of the exercise, of course, was to demonstrate the ability of connotation to grasp a large range of possibilities, the entire, messy, contradictory, conventional, uplifting, and unsavory gamut, in a single work or even word. That it can be all of the above, Hallmark and huckster; true love and lechery. The other point was to show that reading literature of any genre requires work, that the first blush is almost always incorrect, even for a seasoned reader. That a work of literature invites rereading, and that the more time spent the more interesting it becomes. 


Good and bad news. Bad precisely because it requires effort, good because a world is opened up, including in a mere, sixteen-line ballad. Good too because a poem, or any literary work, is a world unto itself that a reader can get lost in, but also one that points to the world outside it, revealing and mirroring it, exploring and questioning it, freezing it in time and thinking beyond it, commenting, critiquing, and criticizing it.


When I hear these days, as I often do, I can't read anymore, or, I no longer like to read, or even, I can't be bothered, I'm tempted to say, So you never were a reader, eh? Once the world of literature has been opened to a person, that and the trick of connotative language, it's like a person has been given eternal life. The possibilities are endless. 


To say when a person still has their eyesight I no longer like to read is an admission that a person has either given up on childlike wonder, thinking, learning, and exploring, or that they never really read with any insight in the first place, that they never learned how, what is required, along with the giant payoff that goes with it. 


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