Summary of Solitary Reaper by William Wordsworth

About the Poet – William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the stalwarts of the English Literature canon. He precipitated the Romantic Movement along with fellow poet Coleridge. Their joint venture, ‘Lyrical Ballads’ of 1798 is considered a touchstone of the Romantic sentiment. His most ambitious work was ‘The Recluse’ but he never got around to completing it. His ‘The Prelude’ was meant to be the preface of ‘The Recluse’. ‘The Prelude’ turned out to be another of his most famous works. Apart from these two great works, the poem, ‘The Solitary Reaper’, too, garnered critical acclaim. He is known for his precision and dedication to poetic representation and he was of the opinion that he owed his poetic skills to his imagination and memories.

He was the son of John Wordsworth and Anne Cookson. He had four siblings of whom he was closest to his sister, Dorothy. He was married to family friend, Mary Hutchinson but he had a relationship with a Frenchwoman named Annette Vallon before his marriage to Mary. He had a child named Caroline with her but could never marry Annette. However, he did support them financially.

He was great friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was also close to the poet Robert Southey. They all resided around/near/by the Lake District, northwest England, and was thus, called the ‘Lake Poets’.

Wordsworth was given the title and position of the Poet Laureate of Britain in 1843 and he remained so till his death in 1850.

About the Poem

The poem is one of the most famous from Wordsworth’s compendium. It is a ballad in four stanzas. It was composed on 5th November, 1805 and published in 1807 in his poetry collection, Poems, in Two Volumes. Unlike most of his poetry, which were the fruits of his own experiences, this particular poem was someone else’s. It was the experience of a friend of Wordsworth’s, Thomas Wilkinson, who wrote about this incident in his Tours to the British Mountains.

Setting of the Poem

The poem is set against a pastoral scene. A solitary reaper sings out her heart while working in a field. The narrator happens to come upon the scene by chance and is mesmerized by the reaper’s song. The mood is poignant. The air that surrounds the poem is somber yet fond. This leaves a deep mark on the narrator as he himself claims later in the poem.

Summary of Solitary Reaper

Stanza 1:

The narrator finds himself in a field where a young maiden was working while singing to herself. The song has such a beautiful and sad tune that the narrator is enthralled and he urges any interrupters to either stop or pass by gently so as not to disturb her. He calls out to anybody who might listen about how the song fills the vale.

Stanza 2:

The narrator says that the song of the young reaper was more beautiful than the welcome notes of the nightingale to exhausted travelers in the Arabian deserts. He even goes on to say that no spring time cuckoo across the Hebrides could sing as well as the maiden.

Stanza 3:

However, the narrator confesses he does not understand the meaning of the song. He asks if anybody could explain what the girl is singing. Was she singing of old tales of battles and tragedies, or was she singing of more familiar, day to day things? Perhaps she was singing of some loss or pain or sorrow, or vestiges of everyday life.

Stanza 4:

Even when the narrator finds no definite answer to his query, he does not feel troubled over it. All he knows is that the song the solitary sings is a never-ending one. He watched her singing all the while she was buried in her work, even as she bent over the sickle. The narrator found himself motionless in rapture. And as he passed on his journey uphill, he says that he still carried the song in his heart, as a memory.

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