‘The Solitary Reaper’ is one of Wordsworth’s best-known poems. Although it’s a ballad, it didn’t appear in Wordsworth’s most famous collection, Lyrical Ballads, because he wrote it after the publication of that volume (co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge) in 1798. ‘The Solitary Reaper’ appeared in Wordsworth’s 1807 collection Poems in Two Volumes. The poem has received a fair bit of critical analysis; here, we offer some notes towards a commentary on it.
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.
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.
It was T. S. Eliot – a later poet, and not one who otherwise shares much with William Wordsworth – who observed that genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood. ‘The Solitary Reaper’ is, on one level, an expression of such a sentiment: it is a poem about the power of poetry itself.
In summary, ‘The Solitary Reaper’ tells of the poet’s hearing a woman reaping in a field on her own. She is Scottish – a ‘Highland lass’ – and appears to be singing a song in Scots Gaelic, which is why the English Wordsworth cannot understand what she sings. However, he admires the beauty of her song, comparing it favourably with the cuckoo singing in spring or a nightingale delighting weary travellers in Arabia.
The language of the poem is not as economical as it might be. This seems to be deliberate, but the poem wouldn’t pass Ezra Pound’s recommendations for imagist poetry, for example. The phrase ‘motionless and still’, for instance, is surely needlessly tautological, since both adjectives mean essentially the same thing. Why might Wordsworth employ both? Note how the poem seems to draw attention to itself as a work of repetition and tautology: the reaper is ‘solitary’, ‘single’, ‘singing by herself’, ‘Alone’, etc.
‘The Solitary Reaper’ is written in iambic tetrameter (although the fourth line in each stanza is a trimeter), rhymed abcbddee in stanzas 1 and 4, and ababccdd in the two middle stanzas. In terms of the poem’s form, it is modelled on a Tuscan verse form which has been called the Italian equivalent of the English ballad. In other words, this is vernacular poetry, matching the singing of the ordinary everywoman, the solitary reaper who is the poem’s subject.
‘The Solitary Reaper’ is a quintessentially Romantic poem in many respects: its ballad form, its focus on solitariness among nature (the girl is reaping in the fields of the wild highlands), and its emphasis on human emotion (‘plaintive numbers’; ‘natural sorrow, loss, or pain’). Its ending is similar to another famous poem Wordsworth published in his 1807 collection: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, also known as ‘the daffodils poem’. That poem, too, ends with Wordsworth recalling his encounter with the poem’s subject (the daffodils in that poem; the reaper in this one) and being able to recollect it long after the event is over.