1] Coleridge, Wordsworth, and his sister had visited the Scottish Highlands
in 1803. Dorothy's Recollections for September 13 that year notes:
"It was harvest time, and the fields were quietly -- might I be allowed
to say pensively? -- enlivened by small companies of reapers. It is not uncommon
in the more lonely parts of the Highlands to see a single person so employed."
In a note to the 1807 edition, Wordsworth traced the poem's source: "This
Poem was suggested by a beautiful sentence in a MS Tour in Scotland written
by a Friend, the last line being taken from it verbatim." Thomas
Wilkinson's manuscript, Tours to the British Mountains (London, 1824),
states: "Passed a Female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she
bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains
were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no
2] Highland: mountainous region in northern Scotland associated with the Celtic clans.
7] Vale profound: broad, deep valley between two high ranges; possibly the world itself, as a place of suffering (OED "vale" 2b). Wordsworth takes this from conventional poetic diction; cf. Gilbert West's "Education. A Poem" (1751), lines 617-21:
On to the Centre of the Grove they stray'd;
Which, in a spacious Circle opening round,
Within it's shelt'ring Arms securely laid,
Disclosed to sudden View a Vale profound,
With Nature's artless Smiles and tranquil Beauties crown'd.
9] Nightingale: a small song-bird, well-known for the male's musical notes in the mating and nesting season. In Classical myth, the female nightingale
is that to which Philomela, tragically raped and mutilated by her sister Procne's husband,
metamorphoses on carrying out her revenge.
14] Cuckoo-bird: song-bird migrating to Britain in the spring and associated with renewal. Cf. John Logan's "Ode to the Cuckoo" (1782) and "Spring" by Thomas Brerewood (-1748):
When the wood-pigeons sit on the branches and coo;
And the cuckoo proclaims with his voice,
That Nature marks this for the season to woo,
And for all that can love to rejoice ...
16] Hebrides: islands northwest of Scotland in the Atlantic.
18] plaintive numbers: conventional poetic phrase, as in George Dyer's "Ode XIX. To a Young Painter and Poetess" (1801):
So may the foliage of thy spring
Be follow'd by the richest bloom;
Nor thou in plaintive numbers sing
To Genius, withering in the tomb.
21] humble lay: conventional poetic diction, as in Thomas Warton's "ODE V. To a Gentleman upon his Travels thro' Italy" (1747), lines 1-3:
While I with fond officious care,
For you my chorded shell prepare,
And not unmindful frame an humble lay ...
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Wordsworth's preface to the 1798 Lyrical Ballads argues that poetry "contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents." It ought not be judged by the presence of artificial, poetic diction. Rather, "the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society" can be its medium. "The Solitary Reaper" exemplifies these beliefs.
Written seven years after Lyrical Ballads, it describes a nameless listener's delight in a young woman's melancholy song in an unknown language as, working by herself in a Scottish valley, she swings a sickle, reaping grain. Four eight-line stanzas, each closing with two couplets and all written in octosyllabic lines, have a musical lilt. Short lines deliver the rhymes at a quick pace. Sentences normally need two or more such short lines to complete, so that few lines are strongly end-stopped; most freely enjamb. Diction is conversational. Often lines consist mainly of monosyllabic words (4-5, 13, 17, 21, 24, 27, 30-32). Wordsworth prefers common verbs, "behold," "reap," "sing," "stop," "pass," "cut," "bind," "chant," "hear," and "break." Words imported into English from Latin or Greek, like "solitary" and "melancholy" or forms with "-ive" and "-ion" endings (e.g., "plaintive" and "motionless"), are infrequent.
Wordsworth writes plain, almost undemanding verse. For example, he repeats the simplest idea in varying words. The girl is "single," "solitary," and "by herself" (1-3). She is "reaping" (3), that is, "cuts and binds the grain" (5), "o'er the sickle bending" (28). The onlooker is both "motionless and still" (29). The lass "sings" (3, 17, 25, 27) or does "chant" (9) a "strain" (6), a "lay" (21), or "a song" (26). The speaker relies on everyday idioms, worn to vagueness by overuse in ordinary talk. Her "theme" (25) is of "things" (19) or "matter" (22) "That has been, and may be again" (24). This excludes only what never existed at all. Whenever the speaker might become elevated in speech, his language seems prosaic, even chatty: "Will no one tell me ..." (17), "Whate're the theme" (25), and "Long after it was heard no more" (32). Wordsworth notes, pointedly, that this last line comes verbatim from a prose travel book.
"The Solitary Reaper" does not implement, programmatically, his dogma of plain diction. For example, "Vale profound" (7), "plaintive numbers" (18), and "humble lay" (21) are semi-formulaic catch phrases in the very eighteenth-century verse whose artificiality he rejects. These exceptions may be deliberate, characterizing the speaker (not Wordsworth) as someone for whom poetry means much. He resorts to formulas as if to hint that the girl's song is out-of-place in the valley, however separated from the traditions of fine verse by her class, occupation, and location. Wordsworth may deliberately impoverish his speaker's language so as to contrast it with the reaper's song.
Unlike other poets, this lass sings alone, isolated from both her predecessors (her "poetic tradition") and any audience. Dryden, Pope, Gray, and so many others defined themselves by quoting from classical literature and each other. Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" shatters this continuity. Her song, like a found poem, springs directly from nature, without literary context. Her "music" runs like water ("overflowing" the valley) and surpasses the beauty of two celebrated English song-birds, the nightingale and the cuckoo. Here again the speaker raids conventional poetic language, as if incapable of finding truly suitable language. Ironically, both his analogies break down. Reaping takes place at harvest time, in the autumn, not in the spring or summer, seasons traditionally associated with the cuckoo and the nightingale. The reaper, a single "Maiden" (25), hardly fits the myth of married Philomela, rape victim and tragic revenger, even though the reaper sings in a melancholic, plaintive way about "Some natural sorrow" (23). The strange language in which the lass chants also removes her from any poetic tradition known to the speaker. He comprehends only her "sound," "voice," and "music," though it rings in his heart -- his memory -- "long after it was heard no more" (32).
This simple confession redeems the speaker from his own impoverished language. He bears witness to something that eighteenth-century poetry seemed at times embarrassed of. What transfixes him in song is not its content, but its emotionally expressive music. The listener does not understand why she sings in melancholy, only what the emotion itself is. This feeling "could have no ending" (26), as if she, like Keats' Ruth amid the alien corn, communicates wordlessly something universal about the human condition. Despite its sadness, the song helps the speaker to mount up the hill (30). In current psychology, the capacity to feel emotion and link it to goals makes life, indeed survival itself, possible. The speaker's "heart" (31), by bearing her music, can go on. For that reason, "The Solitary Reaper" relates an ecstatic moment in which a passer-by transcends the limitations of mortality. Both the song and he go on together.
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: William Wordsworth, Poems in Two Volumes (1807). See The Manuscript of William Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes (1807): A Facsimile (London: British Library, 1984). bib MASS (Massey College, Toronto).
First publication date: 1807
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire, J. R. MacGillivray
RP edition: 3RP 2.386.
Recent editing: 2:2002/3/20*1:2002/9/9*1:2002/11/7
Rhyme: ababccdd or abcbddee
Other poems by William Wordsworth