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POETICAL EXCURSION #7

“The Solitary Reaper”, by William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Behold her, single in the field,

Yon solitary Highland Lass!

Reaping and singing by herself;

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! for the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt

More welcome notes to weary bands

Of travellers in some shady haunt,

Among Arabian sands:

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard

In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,

Breaking the silence of the seas

Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?–

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:

Or is it some more humble lay,

Familiar matter of to-day?

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,

That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o’er the sickle bending;–

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

:: I like this poem a great deal, mostly for its sense of sadness for a question that shall perhaps never be answered. The speaker is traveling, and he encounters a Highland woman working in her field. She is singing, and though he does not know the song its melody moves him greatly. He exhorts his fellow travelers to tell him what the song is, and what she is singing about, but none answer, and thus he must go away never knowing what the woman is singing about although he will forever remember that tune which has captivated him so.

The poem is full of rich imagery. The Highlands themselves suggest a rugged place, where working the fields is as much the province of women as men because the land is so difficult. There is also a sense of loneliness, because the woman is alone; Wordsworth tells us that in the very title. Is she a widow? Is her husband off to war or market? We never learn, and the question is only implied and never asked, because the speaker is more concerned with the woman’s song than with the woman herself. He tells us that the tune is melancholy, and his speculations as to its subject are all sad ones, and yet the melody is more welcome to him that any birdsong. The speaker seems to be starved of beauty, and he wants to stay and hear the song and pray that it never ends, but he cannot — he can only move on and carry the song with him in his heart.

This seems an apt poem to read as August wanes and September arrives, with its autumnal imagery and its tone of wistful remembrance. We reap in the fall, and things like a lovely song can help us to get through the long, cold winter.

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