Analysis

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Last Updated on June 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

In every respect, “The Solitary Reaper” by William Wordsworth employs elements of Romantic English poetry. This lyrical ballad, which can also be classified as a pastoral, focuses heavily on human emotion and the place of the individual in a natural setting. The setting here is a key element of the...

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In every respect, “The Solitary Reaper” by William Wordsworth employs elements of Romantic English poetry. This lyrical ballad, which can also be classified as a pastoral, focuses heavily on human emotion and the place of the individual in a natural setting. The setting here is a key element of the poem. The reader is transported to the Scottish Highlands, where they can easily imagine coming across a lone woman singing as she works in the fields. Wordsworth, like many of his contemporary Romantic poets, employs the landscape of a rural setting to set the mood of the poem. In it, we see the beauty that arises when an individual is dwarfed by the great size of the natural world around them. In fact, many of Wordsworth’s poems feature a lone figure that the speaker encounters while wandering around in the great outdoors. This poem, as the title would suggest, is no different.

Wordsworth employs several literary devices in order to communicate his ideas in the poem’s thirty-two lines. In beginning the poem with the line “Behold, her single in the field,” he makes use of apostrophe, in which a poem’s speaker addresses an object, an abstract idea, or a person who is not present in the poem itself—in this case, the reader. Wordsworth also uses metaphor to compare the Highland woman’s singing to that of a nightingale or a cuckoo, emphasizing both the transcendent beauty of the song and the connection of the woman to the natural world.

The solitariness of the woman in the field is repeated throughout this short ballad. In fact, most of her descriptors serve only to describe her solitariness. In just the eight lines of the first stanza, she is “single in the field,” “solitary,” “by herself,” and “alone.” Her song is described as “plaintive” and “melancholy.” The speaker, too, appears to be alone in this “Vale profound,” as he makes no mention of friends or traveling companions. All of this serves to paint a picture of humankind’s smallness compared to the vastness of nature.

At the same time, Wordsworth revolves his entire ballad around the lone reaper. She is at the center of all that he imagines, be it the epic battles of which she might be singing, the far-off Arabian deserts, or the remote islands of the Hebrides. This is another aspect of Romanticism, extrapolating large ideas from an otherwise small subject. In this solitary woman’s song, the words of which he cannot understand, the speaker experiences great beauty, deep emotion, and a rousing of his own imaginative powers.

All this is evident in the main idea of the poem. Throughout the four stanzas, Wordsworth is communicating the idea that imagination and emotion have the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and transport us to far-off times and places. Something as mundane as seeing and hearing a lone peasant working in the fields has taken the speaker far beyond his present setting and brought him to wherever his mind can imagine. As with so many of the works of Wordsworth and his fellow Romantics, we are reminded that our perceived experience is just one small element of a greater and mysterious reality.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

“The Solitary Reaper” is a short lyrical ballad, composed of thirty-two lines and divided into four stanzas. As the title suggests, the poem is dominated by one main figure, a Highland girl standing alone in a field harvesting grain. The poem is written in the first person and can be classified as a pastoral, or a literary work describing a scene from country life. The eyewitness narration conveys the immediacy of personal experience, giving the reader the impression that the poet did not merely imagine the scene but actually lived it. However, Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, writes in her Recollections of a Tour in Scotland that the idea for “The Solitary Reaper” was suggested to William by an excerpt from Thomas Wilkinson’s Tour in Scotland. Since Wordsworth’s poem is not autobiographical, one can assume that the poet is adopting a persona, or taking on a fictional identity (usually referred to as the “speaker” of the poem).

“The Solitary Reaper” begins with the speaker asking the reader to “behold” the girl as she works in the field. The first stanza is a straightforward description of the scene. The girl is standing alone in the field, cutting grain, and singing a “melancholy strain.” Wordsworth emphasizes the girl’s solitude by using words such as “single,” “solitary,” “by herself,” and “alone.” Solitaries are common figures in Wordsworth’s poetry and are usually surrounded by a natural environment. The act of reaping alone in the field binds the girl intimately to the earth. Also, as the girl sings and the melody fills the lonely valley, she becomes almost completely merged with nature.

The next two stanzas describe the speaker’s reaction to the maiden’s song. The words of the song are in a language unknown to him, but he remains transfixed by the melody, which seems to stretch the limits of time and space. He associates the sweetness of the reaper’s song with the beautiful cries of the nightingale and the cuckoo, both familiar images of transcendence in Romantic poetry. As he allows the song to engulf his consciousness, he envisions far-off places and times of long ago. His imagination transports him from the field in which he stands to the edge of infinity.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker abruptly shifts his attention from his musings to the scene before him. He continues to listen, but the transcendent moment is past. He again calls attention to the reaper, who is unaware of the speaker’s presence or the effect her song has had on him. As the speaker walks away from the field, the song fades from his hearing, but its plaintive melody echoes in his heart and his imagination.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

Wordsworth uses several poetic devices in “The Solitary Reaper.” Among them is apostrophe, which is defined as a figure of speech where the speaker of the poem addresses a dead or absent person, an abstraction, or an inanimate object. At the beginning of the poem the speaker invites the reader to “Behold, her single in the field,/ Yon solitary Highland Lass!” He further cautions the reader to “Stop here, or gently pass!” Although the reader is not present, the speaker’s imperative to “behold” the girl at her work puts the reader vicariously in the company of the speaker, as if they were walking the Highlands together. After the first four lines, the speaker shifts his attention away from the implied presence of the reader and does not allude to it again.

Metaphor, another common poetic device, is also found in “The Solitary Reaper.” The poet uses metaphor to compare two images without explicitly stating the comparison. For example, in the second stanza the speaker compares the song of the reaper to those of the nightingale and cuckoo. Although the three songs are fundamentally different from one another, they become metaphors for transcendence as they suggest to the speaker distant times and places. Because the maiden’s song is in a language unknown to the speaker, he is freed from trying to understand the words and is able to give his imagination full rein. The bird-songs and the girl’s song are thus intertwined, a further link of the maiden to nature.

Suggestion through imagery is also used in connection with the reaper herself. The poet offers little description of her beyond the bare essentials given in stanzas 1 and 4. All the reader knows is that the reaper is a simple peasant girl singing a rather sad song while harvesting grain in a field. However, the speaker’s imaginative associations make her much more. He connects her with shady haunts of Arabian sands, the cuckoo and the nightingale, the seas beyond the Hebrides, epic battles, and the common human experiences of sorrow and pain. From his perspective, she becomes the center of the universe, if only for a moment. Like her song, she dwarfs time and space, to become a metaphor for the eternal.

Music is also a dominant image in the poem. It is reinforced by the ballad form whose tones, rhythms, and rhymes emphasize the lyrical feeling. The musical image is further underscored by the use of alliteration. The repetition of s sounds, which are threaded throughout the poem, lends a tonal unity to the piece. For example, in the first four lines of the first stanza, fourteen words contain s. This pattern is repeated in the other stanzas but decreases toward the end of the poem as the reaper’s song releases its grip on the consciousness of the speaker.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

“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 Reaper,” Wordsworth’s The Prelude and “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tinturn Abbey” offer examples of poems that reflect intense instances of mystical insight as well as the sometimes uneasy, sometimes joyous response the poet had toward these visionary experiences. In “The Solitary Reaper” Wordsworth celebrates such illuminating moments. The girl, her song, and her natural surroundings combine in a unified whole and contribute to the speaker’s expanded vision of reality.

For modern readers, whose lives overflow with activity, the theme of encountering the transcendent in nature or through everyday events may at first seem strange. Since many people have little chance to walk in the woods or stroll through farmland, readers might be tempted to dismiss Wordsworth’s poem because the setting and situation do not reflect their own experiences. Although the values, concerns, and lifestyle of Wordsworth’s time were different, the yearning of the human spirit to feel connected to something larger than itself remains as strong today as it was during the nineteenth century. Modern people long for a quiet place to recollect themselves, a place where they can catch a glimpse of the eternal in the details of their lives. Thus the theme of transcendence in “The Solitary Reaper” is timeless, as it speaks to the needs of the human spirit.

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