The Solitary Reaper

by William Wordsworth

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How does the thrilling sound of the cuckoo affect the seas in "The Solitary Reaper"?

Quick answer:

The thrilling sound of the cuckoo affects the seas by breaking their silence. Sea waters are not really silent; endlessly pounding waves create a constant form of natural white noise. Seas around the remote and uncrowded Hebrides islands, though, may seem quiet and deserted. The cuckoo's call, nonetheless, overwhelms the sound of crashing waves and fills the empty, desolate space.

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In "The Solitary Reaper," the speaker passes a field and notices a woman alone, singing beautifully as she cuts and gathers grain. So enthralled by the sound, he cannot help but compare her voice favorably to two birds with melodious songs. He declares her voice to be more lovely than that of a nightingale:

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.

The cuckoo croons an exciting announcement of the arrival of spring. Its voice is so thrilling and powerful that is breaks "the silence of the seas"—yet seas actually are not very quiet. The sound of crashing waves is constant.

On the other hand, the Hebrides (rugged islands off the northwest coast of Scotland) are remote and unpopulated; therefore, their waters may seem quiet in terms of lack of people and ship traffic. These conditions make the seas around the Hebrides seem like a place of solitude and peace.

In either case, the cuckoo voice is distinctive enough both to override the white noise of waves and to fill the silence of empty waters. The reference to a cuckoo bird—a symbol of adultery—recalls the melancholy tone of the woman's voice.

According to the speaker, though, the reaper's voice exceeds the grandeur of the cuckoo's cry. He describes her voice with hyperbole ("ne'er was heard").

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