"A Red, Red Rose" is written in four four-line stanzas, or quatrains, consisting of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines. This means that the first and third lines of each stanza have four stressed syllables, or beats, while the second and fourth lines have three stressed syllables. Quatrains written in this manner are called ballad stanzas. The ballad is a old form of verse adapted for singing or recitation, originating in the days when most poetry existed in spoken rather than written form. The typical subject matter of most ballads reflects folk themes important to common people: love, courage, the mysterious, and the supernatural. Though the ballad is generally rich in musical qualities such as rhythm and repetition, it often portrays both ideas and feelings in overwrought but simplistic terms.
The dominant meter of the ballad stanza is iambic, which means the poem's lines are constructed in two-syllable segments, called iambs, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. As an example of iambic meter, consider the following line from the poem with the stresses indicated:
That's sweet / ly play 'd / in tune.
This pattern exists most regularly in the trimeter lines of the poem, lines which most often finish the thoughts begun in the previous line. The rhythm's regularity gives the poem a balanced feel that enhances its musical sound.