The Solitary Reaper by William Wordsworth Summary & Analysis

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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.
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.
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?
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.


      The poem, The Solitary Reaper, is a lyric and was written in 1807. It was inspired, not by an actual sight, but by the description of a Solitary Reaper given in Thomas Wilkinson’s “Tour in Scotland”.


      The poem The Solitary Reaper, aims at giving us the figure of a lonely reaper in the Highlands reaping the corn and singing a sad song. The poet idealizes the solitary Scottish maiden and her song. He thinks that her song is more musical than that of a nightingale or a cuckoo. The poet is greatly impressed by the sadness and the wistfulness of the song that he hears, and feels that it has created an unforgettable impression upon his mind.

      It is to be noted that Wordsworth strikes a democratic note so far as the theme of this poem is concerned. He chooses a simple familiar peasant girl as the subject of his poem. This is something new in English poetry because in the eighteenth century, the poets were mainly concerned with ‘town life and towns’ people. They never wrote about the common man. Wordsworth who is a Democrat and, who believes in the equality of man, makes a simple Scottish maiden the heroine of his poem. In his own words, he “chooses incidents from humble and common life as themes for his poems”.

      The central idea in the poem is that the song of the lonely Scottish girl is more thrilling than that of a nightingale or the cuckoo. Further, that it has such haunting melody (music) about it, that it continues to occur again and again to the mind of the poet, long after he had heard it:

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 poem The Solitary Reaper, illustrates Wordsworth's theory of poetry. This poem aptly illustrates Wordsworth’s theory that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. He and his sister Dorothy had actually come across several such reapers singing while at work in remote parts of the Highlands of Scotland while touring there. The journal of a traveler and the diary of his sister remind the poet of these experiences and the joy they had brought him. So, he was inspired to write this poem, one of the finest lyrics.

      This is one of the finest lyrics of Wordsworth—a poem which is more a vision than a piece of meditation as a Wordsworthian lyric is apt to become. As the reaper sings in Gaelic, the poet does not know what she is singing about but he is thrilled by the haunting melody of her song. His imagination is set at work, so that it travels in space to the far-off Arabian sands or to the farthest Hebrides in order to collect similes which would render the thrilling quality of the girl’s song. Indeed the two similes are among the most romantic and imaginative that Wordsworth ever drew.

Full of Romantic Effects

      In the next, stanza where Wordsworth’s imagination travels in time and goes to the dim, far off past, there is the very essence of romance in these highly suggestive lines:

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow,
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.

      These are among the most suggestive verses in Romantic poetry and may be compared with the finest things that Keats and Coleridge ever wrote.

Simple Diction

      Yet the diction of the poem is so simple and pure. There is no art in the poem. Only there is a sense of inevitability about every word used, about every image drawn. The music has a magical, haunting quality, the enchantment of the song of the reaper herself. The poet makes us feel what he himself felt.

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