The Solitary Reaper Questions and Answers
by William Wordsworth

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The Solitary Reaper Theme

What's the main theme of the poem "The Solitary Reaper" by William Wordsworth?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I would like to second the original post about art being what connects us as human beings. It is aptly noted that the speaker cannot understand the reaper, as she sings in Scottish and the speaker is English. I would argue that this is also true of the bird song's the speaker admires; naturally, we do not know the "words" or meaning of their singing but we are moved by the beauty  of the songs just the same.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The overall theme of the poem seems to be one that reveres the idea of nature and the individual's place within it. The ability of the speaker, presumably Wordsworth, to be able to hear the song of the solitary reaper and project the meaning of it in his own mind allows for an expansion of moral imagination that could have only been possible with the individual's assertion into the natural setting and the reverence of that setting.  The theme being advanced at the conclusion of the poem is that the "spontaneous overflow of emotions" that Wordsworth says defines poetry can also have application to the natural setting and we have to be mindful of this potential that exists and revere it.

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coachingcorner eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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A strong theme in the poem "The Solitary Reaper" by William Wordsworth is that of regret. Although neither we, nor the poet, can understand the poignant words the solitary woman is singing, her song is sad and sorrowful enough to make us curious as to it's subject. Is she regretting the passing of happier times in her youth, or childhood? perhaps she is thinking of a deceased sweetheart whom she will never see again. Wordsworth is both transfixed by the haunting melody of the song, and intrigued by its singer. Because she sings in Scots Gaelic we will never know, and so may feel a pang of regret, like the poet as he treads unwillingly away with the melody still tinkling in his memory.

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Doug Stuva eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" is indicative of the Romantic view of the imagination.  The poem's theme is the power of human imagination to see the transcendent in the everyday.  The enotes Study Guide on the poem says:

“The Solitary Reaper” is about the power of the imagination to transform common, everyday events into representations of a larger reality. To the Romantic poets, imagination was not a synonym for fantasy. Instead they saw it as closely allied with intuition and emotion. This faculty enabled the poet to see familiar things in a radically different way....The aim of the Romantics was to express an abstract idea using concrete images that were usually drawn from nature.

The poem is an example of the commonplace pointing the sensitive observer toward an ideal of unity or completeness of being. Although the reaper is a flesh-and-blood person, she becomes a spiritual gateway for the speaker of the poem. The natural environment that surrounds her only heightens her mystery. Her simple song is an expression of her own heritage and background, yet the speaker imagines it to be an articulation of the eternal, the boundless, the ultimate reality. This intuitive impression of the infinite leaves the speaker a different person than when he first encountered the girl. The wonder of her song permeates his intellect and lingers in his heart long after he hears the last notes.

In the poem, then, the everyday scene ignites the emotions and intuition of the speaker, leading him to the transcendent, to a state beyond human understanding.  The reaper's song sparks his imagination leading him to the sublime, an effect created when a writer encounters power or mystery or awe in nature that is beyond human understanding.   

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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To me, what Wordsworth is doing in this poem is thinking about the nature of art and poetry.

In this poem, he hears the girl singing and he thinks that the song is really beautiful.  However, he does not understand her song.  Probably this is because she is not singing in English (she's Scottish).  Even though he does not understand her, he is struck by how beautiful her song is and he says he heard it in his heart long after he couldn't actually hear it anymore.

I think this represents his idea that art and poetry are things of pure emotion like that song, and not things for understanding with your brain.

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lit24 | Student

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.

Wordsworth uses two images--"word pictures"--to describe how refreshing and reinvigorating it was to listen to the melodious song of "the solitary reaper."

1. A group of exhausted travellers when crossing the scorchingly hot Arabian desert arrive at a nearby oasis to refresh themselves. As soon as they enter this cool and shady retreat, they first hear the melodious song of the nightingale and immediately they feel revitalised. The tuneful and pleasant song of the bird drives away all their feelings of exhaustion. Similarly, Wordsworth remarks that he was also revitalised when he heard the "melancholy strain" of 'the solitary reaper.'

2. In England during the bitterly cold winter season all the birds migrate to warmer countries in the tropics. They return to England at the beginning of the spring season which marks the end of winter. Traditionally, it is the cuckoo which first returns to England in spring and as soon as the people hear the melodious sound of the cuckoo bird they are thrilled and delighted because they know that the harsh winter season has ended. The Hebrides are a group of small islands in the remote North West coast of Scotland. The winter season in the "farthest Hebrides" was always extremely harsh and the sound of the cuckoo bird signalling the end of winter was specially significant. In the same manner, the song of the solitary reaper was special to Wordsworth.

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 help her.