Passion in Literature: May 3 (John Anderson, My Jo)

“John Anderson, My Jo,” by Robert Burns, acknowledges some regular tropes of love poetry during the sixteen to eighteen hundreds, buts takes a different approach to them, and conveys a unique idea in comparison to other works of that time. For instance, the familiar notion of beauty fading with time is present in the lines “Your locks were like the raven, / Your bonie brow went brent; / But not your brow is beld, John, / Your locks are like the snow.” (1. 3-6). However, instead of using this as an argument for why action should be taken during youth, it is a contently-made observation about how long the speaker has had the pleasure of being in a relationship with John Anderson. This is demonstrated by the following line, “But blessings on your frosty pow” (1. 7).

The second stanza adds to the idea of a long and fulfilling relationship between the speaker and her beloved, John. This opposes many other “love” poems, which are really more about short romances which have the primary purpose of sexual interaction than truly loving relationships. In love poetry, metaphors are commonly made to describe life– sometimes the passage of the sun through the sky, or the changing of the seasons. Similarly, the metaphor of ascending and descending a hill is used to describe life in “John Anderson, My Jo.” This can be seen in the second stanza: “We clamb the hill togither; . . . Now we maun totter down, John.” (2. 2, 2. 5).

All together, the content of the poem presents love as a mellow and happy lifetime spent together, which is much different from other love poems. One may, after reading this poems and a few others on our handout, consider which version of love truly is love. In my opinion, all versions described in the poems are forms of love– it is simply the fault of the English language for packing so much diverse meaning into one word. Another obvious difference in the poem is that the speaker is a woman (even though the poem is written by a man), so I could see someone taking this to represent the woman’s version of love, and other love poems, the man’s. I don’t believe this though.

I suspect the rhythm is supposed to be a series of couplets, the first line of each being seven syllables, and the second being six. Especially in the second stanza, syllable count deviates. I would propose that an explanation for this would be the difference in pronunciation between our current English dialect, and Burns’ old Scottish one. For instance, the line “We’ve had wi’ane anither” (2. 4) I would count as seven syllables, pronouncing “wi’ane” as “wih” and “ane,” but my supposition is that it would actually be pronounced closer to a single syllable “wane.”

The rhyme scheme is for the most part a simple ABAB, but the lines five and seven of each stanza do not rhyme with each other (“John” with “pow” and “John” with “foot”).  Each line five does, however, rhyme with lines one and three. I am unsure whether the rhyme scheme is ABAB ACDC, or if these “one-three-five” rhymes are just coincidence.

The overall regular rhythm and rhymes combined with the consistent repetitions (specifically, of “John” and the phrase “John Anderson my jo”) give the poem a melodic quality. In my head, I read it as a song. Occasional occurrences of alliteration add to this entrancing effect, pulling the reader out of the meanings of words and instead into their sounds. One example of this is the line “Your bonie brow was brent” (1. 4).

This melodic quality fits with the content of the poem, which tells the story of a couple beginning their journey “up the hill” together, and ambling back down when their life comes to a end. Unlike other poems we have read, which are filled with fiery emotions such as hatred, resent, and lust, “John Anderson, My Jo” shows a much more peaceful side of love. The contentment of the poem is matched by the steady, song-like form.

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