Wordsworth uses several poetic devices in “The Solitary Reaper.” Among them is apostrophe, which is defined as a figure of speech where the speaker of the poem addresses a dead or absent person, an abstraction, or an inanimate object. At the beginning of the poem the speaker invites the reader to “Behold, her single in the field,/ Yon solitary Highland Lass!” He further cautions the reader to “Stop here, or gently pass!” Although the reader is not present, the speaker’s imperative to “behold” the girl at her work puts the reader vicariously in the company of the speaker, as if they were walking the Highlands together. After the first four lines, the speaker shifts his attention away from the implied presence of the reader and does not allude to it again.
Metaphor, another common poetic device, is also found in “The Solitary Reaper.” The poet uses metaphor to compare two images without explicitly stating the comparison. For example, in the second stanza the speaker compares the song of the reaper to those of the nightingale and cuckoo. Although the three songs are fundamentally different from one another, they become metaphors for transcendence as they suggest to the speaker distant times and places. Because the maiden’s song is in a language unknown to the speaker, he is freed from trying to understand the words and is able to give his imagination full rein. The bird-songs and the girl’s song are thus intertwined, a further link of the maiden to nature.
Suggestion through imagery is also used in connection with the reaper herself. The poet offers little description of her beyond the bare essentials given in stanzas 1 and 4. All the reader knows is that the reaper is a simple peasant girl singing a rather sad song while harvesting grain in a field. However, the speaker’s imaginative associations make her much more. He connects her with shady haunts of Arabian sands, the cuckoo and the nightingale, the seas beyond the Hebrides, epic battles, and the common human experiences of sorrow and pain. From his perspective, she becomes the center of the universe, if only for a moment. Like her song, she dwarfs time and space, to become a metaphor for the eternal.
Music is also a dominant image in the poem. It is reinforced by the ballad form whose tones, rhythms, and rhymes emphasize the lyrical feeling. The musical image is further underscored by the use of alliteration. The repetition of s sounds, which are threaded throughout the poem, lends a tonal unity to the piece. For example, in the first four lines of the first stanza, fourteen words contain s. This pattern is repeated in the other stanzas but decreases toward the end of the poem as the reaper’s song releases its grip on the consciousness of the speaker.
The poet orders his listener to behold a “solitary Highland lass” reaping and singing by herself in a field. He says that anyone passing by should either stop here, or “gently pass” so as not to disturb her. As she “cuts and binds the grain” she “sings a melancholy strain,” and the valley overflows with the beautiful, sad sound. The speaker says that the sound is more welcome than any chant of the nightingale to weary travelers in the desert, and that the cuckoo-bird in spring never sang with a voice so thrilling.
Impatient, the poet asks, “Will no one tell me what she sings?” He speculates that her song might be about “old, unhappy, far-off things, / And battles long ago,” or that it might be humbler, a simple song about “matter of today.” Whatever she sings about, he says, he listened “motionless and still,” and as he traveled up the hill, he carried her song with him in his heart long after he could no longer hear it.
The four eight-line stanzas of this poem are written in a tight iambic tetrameter. Each follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDD, though in the first and last stanzas the “A” rhyme is off (field/self and sang/work).
Along with “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” “The Solitary Reaper” is one of Wordsworth’s most famous post-Lyrical Ballads lyrics. In “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth said that he was able to look on nature and hear “human music”; in this poem, he writes specifically about real human music encountered in a beloved, rustic setting. The song of the young girl reaping in the fields is incomprehensible to him (a “Highland lass,” she is likely singing in Scots), and what he appreciates is its tone, its expressive beauty, and the mood it creates within him, rather than its explicit content, at which he can only guess. To an extent, then, this poem ponders the limitations of language, as it does in the third stanza (“Will no one tell me what she sings?”). But what it really does is praise the beauty of music and its fluid expressive beauty, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” that Wordsworth identified at the heart of poetry.
By placing this praise and this beauty in a rustic, natural setting, and by and by establishing as its source a simple rustic girl, Wordsworth acts on the values of Lyrical Ballads. The poem’s structure is simple—the first stanza sets the scene, the second offers two bird comparisons for the music, the third wonders about the content of the songs, and the fourth describes the effect of the songs on the speaker—and its language is natural and unforced. Additionally, the final two lines of the poem (“Its music in my heart I bore / Long after it was heard no more”) return its focus to the familiar theme of memory, and the soothing effect of beautiful memories on human thoughts and feelings.
“The Solitary Reaper” anticipates Keats’s two great meditations on art, the “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which the speaker steeps himself in the music of a bird in the forest—Wordsworth even compares the reaper to a nightingale—and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the speaker is unable to ascertain the stories behind the shapes on an urn. It also anticipates Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” with the figure of an emblematic girl reaping in the fields.