The Solitary Reaper Questions and Answers
by William Wordsworth

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

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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Eleanora Howe eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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