The Solitary Reaper: About the Poem
Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s one of the most popular lyrical poems “The Solitary Reaper” is a fine piece of ballad written in 1805 and published in 1807. According to the Wikipedia entry, the poem was inspired by Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy’s stay at the village of Strathyre in the parish of Balquhidder in Scotland in September 1803.
Though many readers feel that the poem is autobiographical and based on the poet’s real experience while travelling in the Scottish Highlands area, there’s no confirmation on that.
The poem, made up of four octaves (eight-line stanza), follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDD with a variation in the first and fourth stanzas. Iambic tetrameter lines run throughout the poem. (An iamb is an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. Tetrameter means four feet in a line.)
Example: Be-hold | her sing | gle in | the field
The visual and auditory images, the comparisons drawn from nature, the rhythmic quality and the fluent language of the verse make “The Solitary Reaper” a real beauty.
The Solitary Reaper: Line-wise Explanation
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
The poet, while travelling in the Highland valleys, comes across a lonely Highlander reaper girl who is harvesting the crops and singing by herself. He tries to draw the attention of the passers-by to the girl by calling them to ‘behold her’. The poet urges them to stop there and listen to her song, or to pass by gently without disturbing her in her singing.
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
The solitary reaper girl is cutting and binding the grain while singing a sad song. The poet again urges the other travellers to listen to her music, as it is overflowing the deep valley.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
Now the poet compares the reaper girl’s song with that of the sweet singing nightingale bird. The melodious note of a nightingale sounds sweet and welcoming to a tired group of travellers in some shady shelter in the middle of the Arabian desert. But the song of the Highland girl is sweeter than that of the nightingale.
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.
Now the comparison shifts to the cuckoo, another well-known song bird. The cuckoo bird in springtime breaks the silence of the seas in the far-off Hebrides islands. But, according to the poet, the song of the solitary reaper is more thrilling than that of the cuckoo.
Will no one tell me what she sings? —
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
The poet doesn’t comprehend the meaning of the song or its subject matter, as the girl is probably singing in her native Gaelic language. So, he asks the other travellers there if anyone can throw some light on ‘what she sings’. From its tone, he guesses it to be a mournful song (plaintive numbers) about some old unhappy things and past battles.
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?
Wordsworth again guesses that the song might be about some more usual happenings like some natural sorrow, loss or pain, a death or a domestic day-to-day incident which has occurred or may happen again.
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; —
In this last stanza of “The Solitary Reaper”, Wordsworth talks about the impact the reaper’s song left upon his mind. No matter what the theme was, the maiden girl was singing like there’s no stopping. Our poet saw her singing at her work bending over her scythe. The flow of her music was so impressive that it seemed to be never-ending.
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.
The poet listened to the girl’s song, stopped on his way and stood still, very much charmed by the girl’s beautiful song. When the poet was climbing up the hill, the song could no longer be heard from there, but he bore the music, the melody of the solitary reaper’s song in his heart. Such was the impression of the song upon his mind.