“The Solitary Reaper” is a lyrical poetry published by the nature poet William Wordsworth in 1907. But the poem was originally written on November 5, 1805. It is a widely read poem, published in the collection Poems, in Two Volumes. This poem is unique for it is not based on the poet’s experience but of his friend and author, Thomas Wilkinson’s. Wordsworth has made a note of it in his Tours to the British Mountains.
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Summary of ‘The Solitary Reaper’
“The Solitary Reaper” by William Wordsworth is written as a recollection of an overwhelming emotional experience. It is about the song sung by a Solitary Reaper. ‘The Solitary Reaper’ was singing and doing her work without minding about anyone. But, the poet was observing her, mesmerized by the song. He compares her song to that of Nightingale and the Cuckoo-bird, yet he states that her song is the best. Despite the poet’s inability to decipher the song’s meaning, he understands that it is a song of melancholy. The poet listened motionlessly until he left the place, but the song never left him. Even after a long time, he has come away from that place, he says, he could still listen. The song continued to echo in his heart long after it is heard no more. The beautiful experience left a deep impact and gave him a long-lasting pleasure.
Analysis of The Solitary Reaper
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
In the First stanza of “The Solitary Reaper,” Wordsworth describes how the Reaper was singing all alone. During one of his journeys in the countryside of Scotland, he saw a Highland girl working in the field all alone. She had no one to help her out in the field. So she was singing to herself. She was singing without knowing that someone was listening to her song. The poet doesn’t want to disturb her solitude so requests the passer by’s go without disturbing her. She was immersed in her work of cutting and binding while singing a melancholy song. For the poet, he is so struck by the sad beauty of her song that the whole valley seems to overflow with its sound.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
In the second stanza of “The Solitary Reaper,” the poet compares the young woman’s song with ‘Nightingale’ and ‘Cuckoo’ – the most celebrated birds by the writers and poets for the sweetness of voice. But, here he complains that neither ‘Nightingale’ nor the ‘Cuckoo’ sang a song that is as sweet as hers. He says that no nightingale has sung the song so soothing like that for the weary travelers. For, the song of the girl has stopped him from going about his business. He is utterly enchanted that he says that her voice is so thrilling and penetrable like that of the Cuckoo Bird, which sings to break the silence in the ‘Hebrides’ Islands. He symbolically puts forth that her voice is so melodious and more than that of the two birds, known for their voice.
Will no one tell me what she sings?–
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
In the third stanza of “The Solitary Reaper,” the poet depicts his plight over not understanding the theme or language of the poem. The poet couldn’t understand the local Scottish dialect in which the reaper was singing. So tries to imagine what the song might be about. Given that it is a ‘plaintive number’ and a ‘melancholy strain’ (as given in line 6) he speculates that her song might be about some past sorrow, pain or loss ‘of old, unhappy things‘ or battles fought long ago. Or perhaps, he says, it is a humbler, simpler song about some present sorrow, pain, or loss, a ‘matter of to-day.’ He further wonders if that is about something that has happened in the past or something that has reoccurred now.
Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;–
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
In the fourth stanza, the poet decides not to probe further into the theme. He comes to the conclusion that whatever may be the theme of her poem, it is not going to end. Not only her song but also her suffering sounds like a never-ending one. He stays there motionless and listened to her song quite some times. Even when he left and mounted up the hill he could still hear her voice coming amongst the produce, she was cutting and binding. Though the poet left that place, the song remained in his heart, long after he heard that song.
Literary/ Poetic Devices Used in The Solitary Reaper
‘The Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth uses a straightforward language and meter as well as natural theme and imagery. Once again Wordsworth reflected his belief in the importance of the natural world. The poem highlights his definition of poetry to be ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ from the poet and the readers’ part.
The poem’s 32 lines are equally distributed among the four stanzas. Each stanza follows the rhyme scheme: ABABCCDD. Use of end rhymes, such as “profound/sound”, “still/hill”, “lay/day” and “grain/strain” makes the poem melodious.
The poem “The Solitary Reaper” begins with an Apostrophe “Behold” where the poet addresses the unknown passersby. He uses it again in the seventh line “O Listen” telling them how the valley is filled with the sound of her.
The poet makes a symbolic comparison of the young woman’s song with Nightingale and Cuckoo bird for the melodious nature of her song. But it turns out to be hyperbole for he exaggerates that her song is better than theirs. The poet very much captivated by her song that the valley is “overflowing with the sound”. Again, he says that the song looked like a never-ending as her sorrows.
The rhetorical question helps to make the point clear. For example, Wordsworth used “Will no one tell me what she sings?”, “That has been, and may be again?” and “Familiar matter of to-day?” it to express his curiosity over the theme and meaning of the song, the girl sang.
The imagery used in a literary work enables the readers to perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “Reaping and singing by herself”, “I saw her singing at her work” and “More welcome notes to weary bands” gives a pictorial description of the young woman at work. He makes the readers visualize what he has seen and how he felt.
About William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth is one of the most important English poets and a founder of the Romantic Movement of English literature, a style of writing that focuses on emotion and imagination. Wordsworth became known as a Lakeland Poet because of the area where he lived, which is renowned for its beautiful, wild landscapes, charming pastures, and countless lakes. He was often called a nature poet because of his emphasis on the connection between humans and the natural world. He became widely successful and was named Poet Laureate of England in 1843.