The Solitary Reaper by William Wordsworth

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At a Glance

In "The Solitary Reaper," the speaker of the poem listens to the song of a woman working in the fields. Moved by the simple goodness of this solitary reaper, the speaker feels a connection with nature and the eternal.

  • The speaker hears a Highland Lass singing in the fields. He doesn't speak her language, however, and can't understand the words she sings. Nevertheless, he's moved by her song.

  • The speaker feels that her song speaks to some truths about nature and human existence, to some pain or history or sorrow that has been passed down through the generations.

  • Even after he moves out of earshot of her song, he can still hear it in his heart. He thinks of it as a profound, eternal song and carries it with him wherever he goes.

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a Romantic poet himself and a friend of Wordsworth, noted that “the grandest efforts of poetry are when the imagination is called forth, not to produce a distinct form, but a strong working of the mindthe result being what the poet wishes to impress, namely, the substitution of a sublime feeling of the unimaginable for a mere image.” 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.

Wordsworth’s conviction that the infinite can be encountered in the finite emerges from his own personal experience. Frequently when he walked alone in nature, he detected a pervading presence, a consciousness that would break into the ordinary moments of his life and turn them into flashes of revelation. In addition to “The Solitary...

(The entire section is 527 words.)