“The Solitary Reaper” is about the power of the imagination to transform common, everyday events into representations of a larger reality. To the Romantic poets, imagination was not a synonym for fantasy. Instead they saw it as closely allied with intuition and emotion. This faculty enabled the poet to see familiar things in a radically different way. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a Romantic poet himself and a friend of Wordsworth, noted that “the grandest efforts of poetry are when the imagination is called forth, not to produce a distinct form, but a strong working of the mindthe result being what the poet wishes to impress, namely, the substitution of a sublime feeling of the unimaginable for a mere image.” The aim of the Romantics was to express an abstract idea using concrete images that were usually drawn from nature.
The poem is an example of the commonplace pointing the sensitive observer toward an ideal of unity or completeness of being. Although the reaper is a flesh-and-blood person, she becomes a spiritual gateway for the speaker of the poem. The natural environment that surrounds her only heightens her mystery. Her simple song is an expression of her own heritage and background, yet the speaker imagines it to be an articulation of the eternal, the boundless, the ultimate reality. This intuitive impression of the infinite leaves the speaker a different person than when he first encountered the girl. The wonder of her song permeates his intellect and lingers in his heart long after he hears the last notes.
Wordsworth’s conviction that the infinite can be encountered in the finite emerges from his own personal experience. Frequently when he walked alone in nature, he detected a pervading presence, a consciousness that would break into the ordinary moments of his life and turn them into flashes of revelation. In addition to “The Solitary Reaper,” Wordsworth’s The Prelude and “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tinturn Abbey” offer examples of poems that reflect intense instances of mystical insight as well as the sometimes uneasy, sometimes joyous response the poet had toward these visionary experiences. In “The Solitary Reaper” Wordsworth celebrates such illuminating moments. The girl, her song, and her natural surroundings combine in a unified whole and contribute to the speaker’s expanded vision of reality.
For modern readers, whose lives overflow with activity, the theme of encountering the transcendent in nature or through everyday events may at first seem strange. Since many people have little chance to walk in the woods or stroll through farmland, readers might be tempted to dismiss Wordsworth’s poem because the setting and situation do not reflect their own experiences. Although the values, concerns, and lifestyle of Wordsworth’s time were different, the yearning of the human spirit to feel connected to something larger than itself remains as strong today as it was during the nineteenth century. Modern people long for a quiet place to recollect themselves, a place where they can catch a glimpse of the eternal in the details of their lives. Thus the theme of transcendence in “The Solitary Reaper” is timeless, as it speaks to the needs of the human spirit.