What Good Is Poetry? Robert Burns’s Immortal ‘A Red, Red Rose’

July 8, 2021 Updated: July 8, 2021

So long as there are lovers in the world, there will be poetry. In fact, it might be argued that if lovers do not produce poetry, they are not really in love. And it is absolutely the case that poetry rejoices even in the earnest, ham-fisted poems written by smitten folks who are not gifted poets. One need not be Bill Shakespeare to write a sonnet of true love and true importance or a “woeful ballad to his mistress’s eyebrow.”

As G.K. Chesterton, a fine poet himself, wrote in his famous vein of anything worth doing is worth doing badly, “It is too often forgotten that just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.” There is nothing wrong with poetry that is born of love alone, for there is profound reason why the word “amateur” is rooted in the Latin word for love.

Poetry has shown us through the ages that love poetry has a special place in the poetic canon and the poet’s heart as a vehicle to immortalize, to grant never-ending life to a beloved creature. And, as it ever has been, it is more often than not that lovers take up the pen of poetic praise with terms of undying endearment and eternal passion. As the philosopher Josef Pieper’s essay collection is titled, “Only the Lover Sings,” the lover makes his or her love immortal in the poetic power of the love song. And it is the immortal, the ideal, that poetry seeks to gain, making life—or at least love—eternal.

The Ploughman Poet

Though the ploughman poet of Scotland, Robbie (or Rabbie) Burns (1759–1796) is a master, the Bard of Ayrshire was ever careful to give his poetry an amateur quality, infused with the colloquial Scottish burr (as opposed to the Irish brogue), the love of the land, and the happy rustic life where poetry finds its truest, tenderest tones. This is crystal clear in his poem of immortal love, promising eternity in the same breath as it longs for it.

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.

But, despite the dramatic vows and seemingly limitless energy of the lover, life is as fleeting as a red, red rose. But love, on the other hand, will never die, being the power that moves the stars, according to Dante. It is in that immortal, unearthly life of love that poetry seeks to participate in, giving poor mortals a taste and transport into a realm on high that is untouched by the ravages of time.

At its best, poetry celebrates the earthy ability to draw folks to realms beyond this earth. The pure, innocent love poetry of Robbie Burns, together with his bawdier pieces, is a happy rebellion against both puritanical fears and promiscuous perversity. The love poem, with all its glorious infatuation, not only emphasizes and celebrates authentic affection but also points out that the body and the heart are good that lead to the Good.

Beautiful amateur poems like “A Red, Red Rose” not only shimmer with the excitement of young love, but they also reach out toward the enduring immortality that all yearn for. The basis of all poetry—and all philosophy and theology, for that matter—is the inherent human desire to live and love forever, till a’ the seas gang dry and the rocks melt wi’ the sun.

The lover only finds comfort and some sighing satisfaction in making the ephemeral eternal. That attempt at expressing the inexpressible is called poetry—which is precisely what makes poetry the language of love.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and The Imaginative Conservative.