In "The Solitary Reaper," the poet (or speaker) describes his experience seeing a Highland (Scottish) girl reaping grain as he listens to her beautiful song. He notes, in the first stanza that the Vale (valley) overflows with the sound. In the second stanza, the poet notes how he appreciates her song more than weary travellers welcome the notes of a nightingale. In the third stanza, he says:
Will no one tell me what she sings? -
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
She sings in Erse, the Gaelic language of Scotland. He doesn't understand the language. It is exotic and this adds to the mystery and wonder of the sound, almost as if her singing is part of nature. In the last stanza, the poet is so affected by this experience that the song stays with him "Long after it was heard no more." Therefore, the reaper's song transcends time and space; it stays with the poet, causing him to think of how this maiden's melancholy song is part of the ongoing story of nature and humanity. This is a common technique in Romantic poetry. The poet experiences a common, everyday experience but imaginatively integrates the experience with a more universal meaning.
The poet uses a technique called apostrophe. He addresses an abstract quality, idea or a person who is not present. This speaker might be addressing the reader, himself or nature itself as he begins the poem with "Behold her, single in the field." Also, it is implied that the girl has no idea he is there, so she does what she would do naturally as if no one were watching. This underscores the idea that her song and nature are one.
The poem begins with a young girl who is harvesting a field alone. She is singing a beautiful, melancholy song, and the speaker is entranced by it. The speaker (or narrator) of the poem comments on the beauty of her song. Because she is alone in the field, she is at one with nature. She is unmistakably connected to nature. The speaker then drifts off in thought about "long ago times and far-off places" (eNotes). At the end of the poem, the speaker comes back to reality and walks away from the field, but is left with the beautiful vision of the young girl and her memorable singing.
The poet orders his listener to behold a “solitary Highland lass” reaping and singing by herself in a field. He says that anyone passing by should either stop here, or “gently pass” so as not to disturb her. As she “cuts and binds the grain” she “sings a melancholy strain,” and the valley overflows with the beautiful, sad sound. The speaker says that the sound is more welcome than any chant of the nightingale to weary travelers in the desert, and that the cuckoo-bird in spring never sang with a voice so thrilling.
Impatient, the poet asks, “Will no one tell me what she sings?” He speculates that her song might be about “old, unhappy, far-off things, / And battles long ago,” or that it might be humbler, a simple song about “matter of today.” Whatever she sings about, he says, he listened “motionless and still,” and as he traveled up the hill, he carried her song with him in his heart long after he could no longer hear it.
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 meldious 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.
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.
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."
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 assist her in her labours.