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The primary experience that the speaker undergoes as a result of hearing the song in the poem is to activate his/ her own moral imagination. Not understanding the words or lyrics to the song, the speaker begins to wonder what could be the basis for singing and, in the process, helps to develop the speaker's own sensation of what might be from what is. Some of the thoughts which enter the speaker's moral imagination is that the song could be one of "old, unhappy, far off things" or "battles" that have been waged. The fact remains that the speaker does not fully know what is being sung or what the words mean, but it can mean so much to the speaker and in the final analysis, this activation of imagination becomes its overall effect.
The poem is made up of four stanzas. In the first stanza, Wordsworth sets the scene for the readers. He asks us to observe the Highland girl busily reaping the ripe grain and singing to herself. He asks us to pause and listen to the song which fills the entire valley,or quietly leave the place without disturbing her.
In the second stanza, Wordsworth tells us that her beautiful song was more refreshing than the melodious song of the nightingale which welcomed the weary travellers as soon as they arrived at an oasis and that her song was more pleasing than the cuckoo's song which signalled the end of the harsh winter season and the beginning of spring.
Wordsworth uses two images--"word pictures"--to describe how refreshing and reinvigorating it was to listen to the melodious song of "the solitary reaper."
1. A group of exhausted travellers when crossing the scorchingly hot Arabian desert arrive at a nearby oasis to refresh themselves. As soon as they enter this cool and shady retreat, they first hear the melodious song of the nightingale and immediately they feel revitalised. The tuneful and pleasant song of the bird drives away all their feelings of exhaustion. Similarly, Wordsworth remarks that he was also revitalised when he heard the "melancholy strain" of 'the solitary reaper.'
2. In England during the bitterly cold winter season all the birds migrate to warmer countries in the tropics. They return to England at the beginning of the spring season which marks the end of winter. Traditionally, it is the cuckoo which first returns to England in spring and as soon as the people hear the melodious sound of the cuckoo bird they are thrilled and delighted because they know that the harsh winter season has ended. The Hebrides are a group of small islands in the remote North West coast of Scotland. The winter season in the "farthest Hebrides" was always extremely harsh and the sound of the cuckoo bird signalling the end of winter was specially significant. In the same manner, the song of the solitary reaper was special to Wordsworth.
Since Wordsworth could not understand Gaelic, the language of the reaper, he impatiently asks whether someone could tell him what she was singing about. By doing so he sparks our imagination as to what she could be singing about.
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?"
Soon,Wordsworth leaves the scene concluding that although he could not understand what she was singing about nevertheless he could always remember the melodious tune of her song:"The music in my heart I bore/Long after it was heard no more."
Wordsworth wonders whether she is singing about the past - about some sorrowful incident of the past, like a defeat in a battle OR about some unhappy incident in the present which may be repeated again in the future. The important thing to remember is that whether it is the past, the present or the future Wordsworth is convinced that what she is thinking about is sad and sorrowful which is echoed in the melancholic tone of her melody.
The words 'single' 'solitary' and 'alone' have been foregrounded. 'Single'implies that she is the only person in the valley; 'solitary' hints at the melancholy mood of the poem and 'alone' refers to the fact that there is no one to help her.
“The Solitary Reaper,” written by Wordsworth in 1805 , is a poem that embodies the delight that Wordsworth felt in poetry and song, and it conveys his sense of joy in experience and in the deep value of the power of memory to shape character.
The initial situation described in the poem is simple and compelling. The speaker, walking in the Scottish Highlands, comes upon a young woman who is cutting and binding grain, and who is singing as she works. He listens and admires the beautiful song, and when he realizes that he cannot understand her language he speculates about her song’s meaning. Then he leaves, but remembers the song in his heart long afterwards.
The first twenty-four lines are in the present tense, a presentation that emphasizes the vividness of the woman’s song and the strength of his memories. Shifting to the past tense after this point emphasizes the importance and vitality of the experience in the time since it originally occurred. This experience clearly created the emotion that the poet recollected in tranquility.
Because the speaker cannot understand the words of the reaper’s song, he speculates upon their meaning. In doing so, his thoughts take the experience far beyond the specific time and place, making of it a universal moment, one which remains in memory long afterwards. The solitary singer is emblematic of the mystery of the sources of art; her song is the symbol of the wide ranges of human experience and deep feelings, and leaves an indelible and lasting impression upon Wordsworth himself.
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