One of William Wordsworth's post-Lyrical Ballads, "The Solitary Reaper" is among the most famous of his poems because of its emotive power and its expression of sympathy with nature.
This lovely poem exemplifies the Romantic virtues of the imagination and idealization of rural life. As the speaker describes the single reaper who "sings a melancholy strain" while she works alone, there is indeed what Wordsworth termed "emotion recollected in tranquility." Further, Wordsworth makes use of metrical composition in order to create auditory imagery as the girl sings "a melancholy strain" that breaks the stillness while she toils in a field of the Highlands. Although the girl sings in Erse, the Gaelic language of Scotland, there is a universal language of the heart which the speaker understands as he hears the plaintive tone of her song in this land of natural beauty. The song's sweet sound reminds this speaker of the songs of the nightingale and the cuckoo, birds often used in Romantic poetry to represent transcendence, or going beyond the human experience.
The natural setting of this poem is an area in northern Scotland that is itself a romantic setting of unspoiled nature with deep blue lochs (lakes) and expansive, empty glens ("the Vale profound"). It is here that the indigenous animals such as red deer and eagles dominate. The girl's "music" breaks the stillness of the area and is more "thrilling" to the speaker than that of the "Cuckoo-bird" who "breaks the silence of the seas" in the Spring. Clearly, the speaker of Wordsworth's poem is emotionally moved by his experience in this lovely and stirring natural setting as he listens to the girl's sweet-sounding and melancholic song.
In William Wordsworth’s poem Solitary Reaper, nature is presented in the cold, dark atmosphere native to the region in which this poet was raised. Wordsworth was born in the northwestern region of England called Cumberland, which abuts Scotland, and "Solitary Reaper" reflects the natural beauty of that region, but also reflects the solitary, almost desolate environment of its vast countryside. "Solitary Reaper" tells the narrator’s story of encountering, perhaps from afar, a lone woman working grain fields, singing while she labors (“Alone she cuts and binds the grain, And sings a melancholy strain”). The narrator, presumably a traveler passing through, is mesmerized by the haunting beauty of this lone woman’s singing, and reflects upon the lyrics of the mournful song:
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago
Enchanted by the woman’s singing, the traveler nevertheless continues his journey, the song now a fixture in his subconscious. His journey, however, takes him across the fields and mountains of Scotland, and the reader is left to visualize the natural beauty of that region. Scotland is known both for its geographical attributes and for the sense of desolation its rural areas suggest. Wordsworth captures that atmosphere well, and his respect for both the beauty of the environment and for its eternal loneliness is felt in "Solitary Reaper."