John Anderson, My Jo

“John Anderson, My Jo,” by Robert Burns, presents a form of love that we haven’t seen in other works. This poem shows a side of love that’s beautiful, serene, and reflective.  It is not dramatic, nor is it begging for attention. The speaker does not appear needy, or jealous; she is simply in love. I consider the lifestyle that she demonstrates to be appealing and attainable, especially for later life. Rather than focusing on the initial stages of love, this poem is a quintessential example of what changes occur over time, in a healthy relationship.

One of the first observations I made when reading this poem was the speaker. Although we have read a wide variety of poetry, all of which featuring speakers with different views, this is the first poem that is spoken by a woman. She presents love in a refreshing manner, because it doesn’t focus on unhealthy ideas.  The relationship between herself and John appears to be honest and healthy, unlike others we have seen. For example, in “Song. To My Inconstant Mistress,” there is an extremely harsh portrayal of punishment the ex-beloved should receive. Although it’s due to unfaithful situations that aren’t present in “John Anderson, My Jo,” it still puts the topic of healthy relationships into question. If the two were truly in love in  “Song. To My Inconstant Mistress,” would the speaker genuinely want his beloved to be damned to hell? He could be saying those things solely out of pain, but in comparison, the relationship seems to lack the love and caring attributes that we see in “John Anderson, My Jo”.  In this poem, the speaker is reminiscing about her experiences with her lover, which is very admirable. When she says, “When we were first acquent, / Your locks were like the raven, / Your bonie brow was brent;” (ll. 2-4), it demonstrates how well she remembers their first encounter. This shows that he had an impact on her immediately, and the later lines show how that connection only grew.

Frequently, we consider love as the typical first stage of it: passionate, intense, and full of sparks. Love may stay that way for certain couples, but I believe it often evolves into something resembling the love shown in “John Anderson, My Jo”. The love shown in this poem is different to the love shown in others. There’s no doubt in it, especially since the speaker is reflecting on what has occurred, rather that the uncertainty of the future. Talking about the past in this manner shows how their love has withstood the test of time, which can be a good measure of how sincere it is. The metaphor of the two climbing a mountain is a wonderful way of showing that, “We clamb the hill thegither; . . . Now we maun totter down, John,” (ll. 10, 13). These lines represent how they were able to overcome difficulties, and how their love stayed strong despite any challenges. The speaker doesn’t appear to be trying to prove anything to herself like the speaker is in, “Sonnet 116”.  She isn’t questioning her love, or proving what it means. Ultimately, this love feels wholesome, happy, and true.

This poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABCB. When reading it aloud, it gives a strong sing-song effect that is only intensified after listening to the song itself. The ABCB rhyme gives me the impression of suspense within the quatrain, because you have to wait for the rhyme. I associate that with gratification, and how we appreciate something more when we have to wait, but are expecting it. We know the B rhyme will repeat itself, but it isn’t as sudden or regular as simple couplet rhymes. For instance, when she says, “John Anderson my jo, John, / We clamb the hill thegither; / And many a canty day, John, / We’ve had wi’ane anither:” (ll. 9-12), the rhyme only feels complete when she says “anither,” due to that sense of gratification. Similarly, I have noticed that the syllables correspond with the rhymes. Whenever there is a repeating B line, they have the same amount of syllables. For example, the lines, “When we were first acquent, . . . Your bone brow was brent;” (ll. 2, 4) each have 6 syllables, and the lines, “We clamb the hill thegither; . . . We’ve had wi’ane anither:” (ll. 10, 12) each have 7 syllables. The correlation between the rhymes and the syllables increases the song-like effect of the rhyme, as well as how it affects the audience.

Love can be many things. We’ve discussed the wide varieties of that word, whether it be referring to your lover, your favorite movie, your friends, or your family. Furthermore, romantic love can be divided beyond that. As love goes through stages, it changes, which is inevitable. Romantic love can be many things, but ultimately, I believe what they have in this poem is as good of a definition as any.