Saturday, April 25, 2009

O My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Yesterday's poem choice was a song by Ben Jonson. Thinking of songs put me in mind of a song by Robert Burns:

O, My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns

O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like a melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art 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!
And 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!

Burns is noteworthy for two things, if you ask me. First is the use of Scots dialect in the written word. Second is his remarkable use of simile.

Today's poem was written as a song, and set to music by Pietro Urbani. It's written in four stanzas, rhymed XAXA XBXB CDCD EFEF. It's written in a form of song meter that alternates lines of four stressed syllables with lines containing only three stressed syllables.

Burns was from Scotland. He was raised in poverty, but his father made sure that young "Rabbie" and his siblings learned to read, write, and do math. Burns learned English as well as the local dialect, and later learned Latin and French as well. Burns lived in revolutionary times (the French revolution was a key event during his lifetime), and was a highly patriotic Scotsman.

Why am I giving you so much biography? Because many folks assume (wrongly) that Burns wrote the way he did because he "didn't know any better." Nae, lasses and laddies, tha's not it. He made conscious choices about what language to write in (Scots, Scots dialect mixed into English, or English) based on his intended audience and the particular subject matter. Many of his political pieces were in English; many of his lyric poems were in English with Scots dialect mixed in, thereby garnering them a wider readership -- even without extensive knowledge of Scots dialect, they are still comprehensible to readers of English.

Poets throughout history borrow from local dialects and/or other languages to convey their points. T.S. Eliot did it (The Waste Land uses Greek, German, Latin, French, Hindi); so did Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum Est). Perhaps it's just a bit of street language or something borrowed from the local patois, but using dialect can be a good thing. It establishes place and provides color (or, if you prefer, flavor) to your lines, and that can be a very good thing. However, as the musicologist David St. Hubbins once noted, there is a fine line between clever and stupid. If you completely overdo the use of dialect, you might end up turning your poem into more of a novelty. If that's what you intend, fine; if not, borrow a page from Burns and use only a judicious sprinkle.

In addition to the use of local dialect, Burns was excellent at simile. Refresher: a simile is "a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by 'like' or 'as'." Webster's Dictionary.

Let's look more closely at Burns's poem: His love is like a newly sprung June rose. Is he referring to the beauty or quality of the woman he loves, or to the nature and quality of the love he feels for her? Either way, it's a spectacular simile, although I like to think he's referring to the quality of his own emotion in this line.

Next, his love is like a melody – not just any tune, either, but one that is played well, and in tune, and sweetly. I have the same questions as before – is he talking about another person or about his own emotion? Still, a great comparison.

Then there's the final simile: As fair art thou, my bonie lass,/ So deep in luve am I
I honestly can't figure out how to rephrase this one to capture it's essence, since he's comparing the quality of her beauty to the depth of his own emotion. I tried putting this into "plain English" for about ten minutes and gave up, because it's imposterous. It's lines like these by Burns that stick in your head because of their language and their imagery, which are irrevocably intertwined.

I'm not saying that we can all be Rabbie Burns, but we can all try to make conscious choices in our use of language, we can all incorporate a bit of modern dialect (or foreign languages, or street talk) into our writing, and we can all spend a few minutes to come up with a kick-ass simile from time to time. And it will help our writing. Or at least, that's what I'm thinking.

1 comment:

joseph said...

Pretty good analysis, helped me as a singer!I'd always sung it as being about the singers emotions, but you helped me realise that , I think, they are the same thing;his love is a reflection of her; and vice versa. So thanks!