Who is the solitary reaper? How does Wordsworth describe her?

The solitary reaper is a young Scottish woman reaping grain in a field. Wordsworth describes her as a creature of nature with a song more beautiful than the nightingale or cuckoo-bird.

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The solitary reaper in Wordsworth’s poem is a girl from the Highlands who is cutting down crops in a field on her own. Her solitary nature seems to be part of her appeal to the speaker, who is struck by the way she appears on her own in the valley, yet is singing in a way that leaves the valley “overflowing” with sound. She seems to derive some comfort from her lonely position in the middle of so much natural beauty, rather than being disheartened by it, even though her songs are “melancholy.”

Wordsworth describes the solitary reaper as being a comfort to passing “bards” such as himself. He positions her as simply one in a long line of singers and ponders whether her “plaintive” songs might tell of past battles or whether they are simply local folk songs. He cannot make out the words she is singing, seemingly, but he notes that the girl sings as if she might go on singing forever; there is no sense that she is tired from her singing or that she has lost the passion for it.

In the same way that her literal singing seems to have no ending, the poet also notes that the memory of it has no ending for him. He thinks of it when much time has passed since he experienced it, because the experience was so singular and the singing was so notable.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 2, 2021
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Wordsworth's speaker is wandering in the Scottish highlands one day when he a spots a "Highland Lass" working all alone, reaping grain in a field. He is riveted by the beautiful and melancholy song she sings as she works. He describes the valley where she reaps as "overflowing with the sound."

The speaker describes her song as more beautiful that the "chaunt" of a nightingale or the notes of the cuckoo bird. He romanticizes these birds by imagining them in exotic locales, the nightingale "among Arabian sands," the cuckoo even farther north than the highlands, in the Hebrides. By romanticizing these creatures, Wordsworth also romanticizes the Highland lass. She, too, is a beautiful, wild creature of nature.

This is a paradigmatic or model Wordsworth poem that exemplifies some of the main traits of the Romantic movement as well as the hallmarks of Wordsworth's poetry. First, in a reversal of centuries of literature depicting poor rural figures as clowns or using them simply as scenic background, he treats this laboring woman with great respect and foregrounds her. Rather than ridicule her, he exalts her for her sublime song.

Second, the poem celebrates nature by comparing the song of this young woman to the song of birds, and does so in a way that elevates both nature and the woman. Finally, the poem ends with the idea that this simple scene can live on in memory, providing joy and solace.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 2, 2021
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The solitary reaper is a young Scottish woman who is singing while she cuts and harvests grain by herself. Wordsworth describes her as a "solitary Highland Lass" who is "Reaping and singing by herself." He instructs us to either stop and appreciate her song or to quietly pass by without making noise. He says that "alone she cuts and binds the grain" while singing a "melancholy strain." All by herself, she sings a song that sounds somewhat mournful while she works. She sings and works, and the sound is so lovely that the speaker is arrested by the experience.

Wordsworth writes that "no Nightingale did ever" sing so beautifully. Further, "A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard / In spring-time from the Cuckoo bird . . . " Her voice must be very pure and beautiful, as he says that it is more beautiful even than a bird's, and that it fills the entire vale with sound. He says that she "sang / As if her song could have no ending," and she bends over her sickle. Her song stays with the speaker long after he can no longer hear her voice, and so it must be very beautiful, indeed.

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At the most basic level, William Wordsworth's solitary reaper is a nameless young woman singing to herself as she works in a field. The narrator of the poem refers to her as "Yon solitary Highland Lass!" (2), and she appears to be a normal, relatively uninteresting commoner. However, the narrator describes the reaper's song with such vivid detail that, although she might be a common laborer, she is ultimately elevated to a level of significant importance by the end of the poem. 

Wordsworth focuses most of his description on the sound of the reaper's song, and he describes it in great detail. First, he compares it to a "Nightingale" (9), which then causes him to imagine "weary bands / Of travellers in some shady haunt, / Among Arabian sands" (10-12). Then, however, Wordsworth imagines that the song refers to "old, unhappy, far-off things, / And battles long ago" (20), suggesting that her song is less of an exotic tale and more of a sorrowful narrative. In any case, Wordsworth describes the reaper's song in rich, complex, and even conflicting detail. The fact that he does so is central to the poem, as the rich description of the reaper's song shows that a vital complexity can be found in even the most "common" sources. Thus, though she is simply a normal, anonymous person working in a field, the solitary reaper becomes an individual of great importance. It is fitting, therefore, that Wordsworth concludes that "her song could have no ending" (26).

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