The Solitary Reaper Analysis

The Poem (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Solitary Reaper” is a short lyrical ballad, composed of thirty-two lines and divided into four stanzas. As the title suggests, the poem is dominated by one main figure, a Highland girl standing alone in a field harvesting grain. The poem is written in the first person and can be classified as a pastoral, or a literary work describing a scene from country life. The eyewitness narration conveys the immediacy of personal experience, giving the reader the impression that the poet did not merely imagine the scene but actually lived it. However, Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, writes in her Recollections of a Tour in Scotland that the idea for “The Solitary Reaper” was suggested to William by an excerpt from Thomas Wilkinson’s Tour in Scotland. Since Wordsworth’s poem is not autobiographical, one can assume that the poet is adopting a persona, or taking on a fictional identity (usually referred to as the “speaker” of the poem).

“The Solitary Reaper” begins with the speaker asking the reader to “behold” the girl as she works in the field. The first stanza is a straightforward description of the scene. The girl is standing alone in the field, cutting grain, and singing a “melancholy strain.” Wordsworth emphasizes the girl’s solitude by using words such as “single,” “solitary,” “by herself,” and “alone.” Solitaries are common figures in Wordsworth’s poetry and are usually surrounded by a natural environment. The act of reaping alone in the field binds the girl intimately to the earth. Also, as the girl sings and the melody fills the lonely valley, she becomes almost completely merged with nature.

The next two stanzas describe the speaker’s reaction to the maiden’s song. The words of the song are in a language unknown to him, but he remains transfixed by the melody, which seems to stretch the limits of time and space. He associates the sweetness of the reaper’s song with the beautiful cries of the nightingale and the cuckoo, both familiar images of transcendence in Romantic poetry. As he allows the song to engulf his consciousness, he envisions far-off places and times of long ago. His imagination transports him from the field in which he stands to the edge of infinity.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker abruptly shifts his attention from his musings to the scene before him. He continues to listen, but the transcendent moment is past. He again calls attention to the reaper, who is unaware of the speaker’s presence or the effect her song has had on him. As the speaker walks away from the field, the song fades from his hearing, but its plaintive melody echoes in his heart and his imagination.

The Solitary Reaper Forms and Devices (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Wordsworth uses several poetic devices in “The Solitary Reaper.” Among them is apostrophe, which is defined as a figure of speech where the speaker of the poem addresses a dead or absent person, an abstraction, or an inanimate object. At the beginning of the poem the speaker invites the reader to “Behold, her single in the field,/ Yon solitary Highland Lass!” He further cautions the reader to “Stop here, or gently pass!” Although the reader is not present, the speaker’s imperative to “behold” the girl at her work puts the reader vicariously in the company of the speaker, as if they were walking the Highlands together. After the first four lines, the speaker shifts his attention away from the implied presence of the reader and does not allude to it again.

Metaphor, another common poetic device, is also found in “The Solitary Reaper.” The poet uses metaphor to compare two images without explicitly stating the comparison. For example, in the second stanza the speaker compares the song of the reaper to those of the nightingale and cuckoo. Although the three songs are fundamentally different from one another, they become metaphors for transcendence as they suggest to the speaker distant times and places. Because the maiden’s song is in a language unknown to the speaker, he is freed from trying to understand the words and is able to give his imagination full rein. The bird-songs and the girl’s song are thus intertwined, a further link of the maiden to nature.

Suggestion through imagery is also used in connection with the reaper herself. The poet offers little description of her beyond the bare essentials given in stanzas 1 and 4. All the reader knows is that the reaper is a simple peasant girl singing a rather sad song while harvesting grain in a field. However, the speaker’s imaginative associations make her much more. He connects her with shady haunts of Arabian sands, the cuckoo and the nightingale, the seas beyond the Hebrides, epic battles, and the common human experiences of sorrow and pain. From his perspective, she becomes the center of the universe, if only for a moment. Like her song, she dwarfs time and space, to become a metaphor for the eternal.

Music is also a dominant image in the poem. It is reinforced by the ballad form whose tones, rhythms, and rhymes emphasize the lyrical feeling. The musical image is further underscored by the use of alliteration. The repetition of s sounds, which are threaded throughout the poem, lends a tonal unity to the piece. For example, in the first four lines of the first stanza, fourteen words contain s. This pattern is repeated in the other stanzas but decreases toward the end of the poem as the reaper’s song releases its grip on the consciousness of the speaker.