The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.