the SOLITARY REAPER
The Solitary Reaper is a simple and beautiful poem written by William Wordsworth. In this poem, he describes a solitary reaper singing at her work. The poem is divided into four stanzas.
The first and the third stanzas of the poem have been composed in the present tense while the second and the fourth stanzas are composed in the past tense. Similarly, the summaries of the first and third stanzas are in the present tense while those of the second and fourth stanzas are in the past tense.
Summary of the first stanza
The poet, William Wordsworth, introduces us to the subject of the poem, the solitary reaper. She is standing alone in the field, reaping and singing. She sings a morose, gloomy song while she cuts and binds the sheaves of grain. It seems to the poet as if the surrounding valley is brimming over with the song of the reaper.
Summary of the second stanza
According to the poet, the reaper’s song surpassed, in its beauty, the sweet notes of the nightingale that welcomed tired groups of travelers into an oasis in an Arabian desert.
The voice of the harvester was more breathtaking than that of the cuckoo singing in spring in the Hebrides islands.
Summary of the third stanza
The poet, however, does not understand the words of the reaper’s song. He starts to speculate on the subject of the song. He thinks that perhaps it is about an ancient incident which occurred in a distant land or a battle which may have taken place years ago.
He further wonders, whether the song has something to do with the day to day life of the solitary reaper. He thinks that she might be singing about grief and sadness which has occurred and might return.
Summary of the fourth stanza
To the poet, it seemed that the song of the solitary reaper would not end. She sang as she worked, bending over her sickle. For a long time the poet listened to the song, enchanted and transfixed. As he moved up the hill, he continued to carry the music in his heart even after he could no longer hear it.
Additional line by line explanation along with identification of some of the poetic devices and figures of speech used.
In lines 1 and 2, the poet, William Wordsworth has introduced us to the solitary reaper.
He has added a dramatic touch with the use of the words, ‘Behold her’. He has further pointed out that the solitary reaper was standing alone in the field. ‘Yon’ is short for ‘yonder’, a word used in old English which means ‘there’. He has referred to the reaper as a ‘Highland Lass’. Here, ‘highland’ refers to the Scottish Highlands, and ‘lass’ is a Scottish term for a girl or a young woman.
In line 3, he has told us that the young woman was reaping the corn and singing. There is an element of internal rhyming (‘reaping’ and ‘singing’).
In line 4, Wordsworth has addressed the reader. He has stated that the moment was such that one could either stand still and experience the song of the solitary reaper, or gently pass by without a sound.
In line 5 and 6, the poet has stated that she cut and bound the grain by herself as she sang a sad and sorrowful tune.
In lines 7 and 8, the poet has beckoned us to listen to the song of the solitary reaper. It seemed to the poet that the entire deep valley was overflowing with the solitary reaper’s song. The poet has also used alliteration (‘sings’ and ‘strain’, line 8).
In lines 9-12, William Wordsworth has transported the reader to the Arabian Desert. Here, ‘shady haunt’ refers to an oasis in the desert. Bands of travelers, exhausted and drained from traveling over the desert, would be welcomed into the oasis by the pleasant notes of a nightingale’s song. The poet has stated, that the song of the solitary reaper was so beautiful, that it surpassed the song of the nightingale.
Several examples of alliteration can be seen here: ‘No’ and ‘nightingale’ (line 9), ‘welcome’ and ‘weary’ (line 10), ‘some’ and ‘shady’ (line 11), ‘among’ and ‘Arabian’ (line 12).
In the lines 13 to 16, the poet has talked about the spring song of the cuckoo bird. The Hebrides are a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. In the spring, the cuckoo birds in these islands break into beautiful tunes. The cuckoo bird’s tune appears to break the silence and stillness of the surrounding seas. Yet the voice of the young reaper is more thrilling to the poet’s ears than that of the cuckoo bird.
The poet has used alliteration (‘silence’ and ‘seas’)
In line 17, the poet has wondered aloud whether no one would tell him what the solitary reaper was singing about. The poet was unfamiliar with the language of the reaper’s song and hence he could not understand the meaning of the words.
In the next few lines the poet has speculated about the possible subjects of the young woman’s song.
In line 18, William Wordsworth has used alliteration (‘perhaps’ and ‘plaintive’).
He has conjectured that the song of the reaper may be about sad things that may have occurred a long time ago in some far off place (“old unhappy far off things”, line 19).
In line 20, Wordsworth has remarked that the song might also have something to do with a battle in the past.
In the next few lines however, the poet has wondered whether the song was about some simple, day to day occurrence in the life of the solitary reaper (lines 21 and 22).
The poet has used internal rhyming (‘familiar and ‘matter’, line 22)
The poet has further speculated whether the song was about some naturally occurring “sorrow, loss or pain” that has been there in the past and may return in the future (lines 23 and 24).
Regardless of what the song’s theme may have been, it seemed to Wordsworth that the solitary reaper’s song did not have an ending (lines 25 and 26).
The poet continued to observe the solitary reaper bending over her sickle and singing at her work (lines 27-28).
The poet has used alliteration in line 27 (‘saw’ and ‘singing’).
In line 29, the poet has remarked that as he listened to the reaper’s song he was completely transfixed by it.
In the last three lines 30, 31 and 32, the poet has stated that as he slowly walked up the hill, the music of the solitary reaper’s song continued to be in his heart long after it could not be heard anymore.
In line 31, there has been use of alliteration (‘music’ and ‘my’).