As the speaker in Wordsworth's poem "The Solitary Reaper" hears the song, there is much that allows for conjecture and a sense of wonderment to emerge. The speaker does not know the what the song means, but this lack of literal comprehension allows for a greater development of symbolic understanding of the song which is put forth by a series of images. One such image is the idea of that the melody of the song heard in the present can transcend time and move a listener to it into the past. The image of the song being as perfectly natural as the song of a "nightingale" or "cuckoo" resonates in the speaker's mind. The speaker becomes transfixed with the song and conjectures the setting of "Arabian sands," implying a world of mystique and unknown. Additionally, the song can be heard as far as "the Hebrides," a strip of islands far removed from civilization. Another conjecture is that the song is song in recognition of past battles and conflicts ("battles long ago") or some type of emotional hurt that cannot be expressed in words, but is articulated through this song (lines 21-25).
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.
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 assist her in her labours.