Last Updated September 6, 2023.
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.