What are the poet's first thoughts when he sees the solitary reaper in William Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper"?

The poet's first thoughts when he sees the solitary reaper in William Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" are related to the song she's singing. As she stands there all alone in the field, reaping away, she's singing a “melancholy strain” whose sound flows throughout the deep vale.

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When the speaker in William Wordsworth's poem “The Solitary Reaper” first glimpses the reaper, he notices that she is alone and singing as she works. He does not understand the words of her song. Perhaps it is in a language he does not know, for she is a “Highland Lass” (line 2). Yet he is struck by the “melancholy strain” (line 6) that is more beautiful in his ears than the song of any bird.

The speaker also feels a strong desire not to disturb the reaper as she works and sings. “Stop here,” he tells himself, “or gently pass!” (line 4). There is something special, almost sacred, about her song that the speaker is loathe to interrupt. He does not wish to intrude upon her solitude, and the whole valley is “overflowing with the sound” of her song (line 8), which fills the air with beauty.

The speaker then speculates on what the song might be about. Perhaps it relates a tale of “battles long ago” (line 20) or of some current “sorrow, loss, or pain” (line 23). Whatever it means, the speaker stands still and listens for a while, watching the reaper at work and letting her music fill him. Then he quietly walks along, carrying the song in his heart as he goes and listening to it within himself “long after it was heard no more” (line 32).

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 4, 2020
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Wordsworth’s speaker’s first thoughts when he sees and hears the solitary reaper working in a highland vale is whether he should stop or “gently pass.” The melancholy strains of her song arrest him, however, and he stands and listens to her.

Thus begins a quintessential Romantic poem. The song of the reaper makes her a part of nature, transcending her humanity. Her song is more beautiful than that of the nightingale. The narrator can’t make out the words, but can speculate about the bittersweet subject of her song. The young reaper becomes exalted above her station as a poor farm worker because of her sublime music.

After standing transfixed and listening, the speaker moves on. However, as he notes at the end of the poem, the memory of that moment sticks with him, providing him with repeated happiness and solace.

The short poem achieves several Romantic goals: first, it expresses emotions recollected in tranquility. Second, it elevates and casts in a positive light the lives of simple working people, in this case a lone farm worker. Third, it speaks to the beauty and healing power of nature, implying that people are more sublime the more they approach a simple, natural state. Finally, it speaks to the power of recollection: the speaker’s simple but powerful experience continues to enrich his life.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 15, 2020
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When the speaker first encounters the solitary reaper, she's standing, as her name would suggest, all alone in a field, where she is reaping. As she goes about her work, she's singing a song: a sad song, to be precise. We know this because the speaker refers to the "melancholy strain" that she's singing, which is just another way of saying that she's singing a sad song.

There must be something special about this song as its remarkable sound overflows the vale. Although the song is sad, the solitary reaper's voice is nonetheless more thrilling than that of a nightingale chanting its "welcome notes" to "weary bands / Of travellers in some shady haunt."

It would seem that neither the solitariness of the reaper nor the sadness of her song in any way depresses the speaker. Far from it. His heart is filled with joy by her lovely song, even though, as he openly admits in the third stanza, he doesn't actually know what she's singing about.

In a prime example of how music can be an international language that transcends cultures and civilizations, the maiden's song captivates and beguiles a man who clearly doesn't hail from the Scottish Highlands and doesn't speak the solitary reaper's language.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 2, 2020
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The speaker's first thought, when he observes the solitary reaper—a young maiden who is cutting and binding the grain in the field while she sings a song to herself—is that her song is a "melancholy strain" (line 6). Though he cannot understand the language in which she sings, he identifies the sadness of the tune. He goes on to claim that no song sung by nightingales has ever felt so welcome to weary travelers, who only wish to stop for the night, as this young woman's song was to him; moreover, no notes from a cuckoo have ever been so welcome to sailors on the lookout for land as this woman's song was to him. Her song and voice, then, must be quite beautiful.

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Wordsworth's thought process has two main phases in his poem "The Solitary Reaper." His first thoughts tend to be upbeat, as he initially imagines the song "Among Arabian sands" (12) and "Breaking the silence of the seas / Among the farthest Hebrides" (15-16). In short, Wordsworth's first thoughts are that the reaper's song has a freeing power, as the musicality of the young woman's singing initially inspires his imagination to explore distant and exciting locations. This first exciting thought is then tempered by one that is more wary, as Wordsworth imagines the song refers to "unhappy, far-off things" (19), and the poet appears to at least partially take back his initial assessment. With this difference between Wordsworth's first and second thoughts in mind, an interesting duality emerges in the solitary reaper's song, as it appears to be simultaneously exciting, awe-inspiring, and melancholy. That said, the lively imagination that was inspired in Wordsworth's first thoughts runs throughout the poem, effectively fusing the two disparate modes of thought represented in the piece. 

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