While walking past a field, the speaker in "The Solitary Reaper" is mesmerized by the lovely singing of a Scottish lass cutting grain in a field. Arrested by the melancholy sound of her voice, the speaker compares her to two birds in the second stanza:
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
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.
He describes her voice in a hyperbolic manner—beyond the beauty of both types of birds—with “No Nightingale did ever” and “A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard … from the Cuckbird.” The songs of these two birds greet and comfort strangers on journeys to faraway, exotic lands (Arabia) and nearby, rugged lands (the Hebrides).
Symbolizing love and death, the nightingale highlights the contrasting ideas of joy and underlying sadness in the reaper’s voice. She is alone in the field, singing and toiling by herself. The speaker suspects that this maiden sings of memories or regrets:
old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago: …
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain.
The nightingale represents both love and death—does the maiden have a lost love in her past? Is she doomed never to love? Nonetheless, her voice is welcoming to tired nomads; it stops the speaker passing by in his tracks. She herself seems tireless as she sings while swinging a sickle to slice grain.
On the other hand, the cuckoo symbolizes the arrival of spring and the act of adultery. The reaper’s energy (belting out song while harvesting) is abundant. Her singing’s melancholy tone, however, is intensified by the idea of infidelity and ensuing sorrow. Her voice’s stirring quality, though, exceeds that of a cuckoo bird’s song.
Like the nightingale and cuckoo, the reaper is a connected to nature. She is physically tied to Scottish farmland, yet her voice takes her to the deserts of Arabia and the rugged Hebrides.