INTRODUCTION TO WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: ‘THE SOLITARY REAPER’

 

UNIT STRUCTURE

1. Learning Objectives
2. Introduction
3. William Wordsworth- the poet
1. His Life
2. His Works
4. The text of the poem

1. Context of the poem
2. Explanation of the poem
3. Poetic Techniques
4. Style and Language
7. Let Us Sum Up
8. Further Readings
10. Possible Question

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 
After going through this unit, you will be able to:
explain the poem ‘The Solitary Reaper’,
describe the context, the poetic devices and the language used by the poet,
value the poem in its totality.

INTRODUCTION


This unit introduces you to the poem, ‘The Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), one of the greatest poets of the English Romantic movement. You must be familiar with or may have read some of the poems written by him. He is perhaps the most celebrated and influential poet of the Romantic period of English literature. Together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another Romantic poet and also Wordsworth’s friend, he published the Lyrical Ballads in 1798. With the publication of this collection of poems commenced the period of Romanticism in the history of English literature. Let me tell you that the idea for bringing out this volume was conceived when Wordsworth and Coleridge were living as close neighbours in Somerset. The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is considered to be the official Manifesto of the Romantic Movement. Here, the Preface is considered to be similar to an official statement of the principles of the Romantic Movement.

Wordsworth is primarily a poet of nature. For him, nature is a living force. Nature is, in a sense, ‘a friend, philosopher and guide’ to man. There is, according to him, a close relationship between man and nature. He held the belief that nature can never betray man. Rather nature is a provider, soother and healer of man. In the poem prescribed, you will see how the solitary highland girl is completely at ease with her surroundings. Also Wordsworth acknowledges his deliberate choice of a ‘language really used by men’, which is applied to ‘incidents and situations from common life’.

In this unit, you will get a bird’s –eye view of the life and works of William Wordsworth and an explanation of the poem prescribed. You will also get an elaboration of the poetic techniques employed, and the style and language used by the poet.


 
 

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH—-THE POET



As has already been mentioned, Wordsworth is the high priest of the English Romantic Movement and he was a whole hearted devotee of nature. Let us now discuss the life of this great poet and also the numerous works written by him.

His  Life


William Wordsworth was born in the year 1770 at Cockermouth in Cumberland on the edge of the Lake District, the third of the five children of John Wordsworth. His beloved sister Dorothy Wordsworth, who was also a poet and a diarist, was born the year following his birth. This is for your information that Wordsworth was very close to his sister who was his companion through most of his life. Even though a silent partner, Dorothy was a great inspiration to her brother William and also to Coleridge, his poet- friend. His mother died when he was only eight, and after his father’s death five years later, Wordsworth was looked after by his relatives who sent him to school at Hawkshead, in the picturesque Lake District region. Here the glorious bounties of nature taught him more than his school lessons could teach him. He lost himself amidst nature and began to feel the presence of some ‘Living Spirit’ in it. Wordsworth has beautifully recorded his feelings in the poem The Prelude which is largely an autobiographical poem. You may read it if you want to know more about his poetic genius.

Wordsworth’s years at St. John’s College in Cambridge were quite different from his life at Hawkshead. He had spent happy years at Hawkshead but he found life at Cambridge very uninspiring and mechanical. During this period, he made two trips to France where he was greatly influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution. He, like most of the other Romantic poets was politically conscious and believed in the motto of the French Revolution: ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ Perhaps you have already read about this motto in your history books. However he was saddened and disappointed by the excesses of the Revolution, especially the beheading of Louis XVI. He, therefore, in his later life, turned to Nature to find solace from the woes and worries of human life. And as I have already mentioned earlier, he held the belief that Nature can never betray man.

Wordsworth had to face many hardships in his life and financial constraints never left him. Initially, his poetry also faced some criticism. But, he never lost faith in himself and patiently continued his work. His efforts were rewarded when he was hailed as the greatest poet that England had ever produced. He was also made Poet Laureate in 1843 on the death of Robert Southey. William Wordsworth passed away in 1850 and was buried in the churchyard at Grasmere.

LET US KNOW

The French Revolution is considered to be the bloodiest revolution in world history. It was a period of great social and political turmoil in the political history of France and Europe in general. The structure of the French government underwent a radical change from absolute monarchy to political liberty, social equality and national patriotism. The aristocrats were executed on the guillotine and there was much bloodshed during the days of the Revolution. Though the republican ideals of the Revolution influenced Wordsworth, he was much repulsed by its violent character. The immediate motive of the French Revolution was to abolish the French monarchy.


His  Works    

Wordsworth was a prolific writer who brought out a great variety of works throughout his literary career. Let us list some of his major works. The Lyrical Ballads (1798) includes poems like ‘Simon Lee’ (which we have dealt with in detail in your General English material), ’ Lines Written in Early Spring’, ‘Lines Composed A Few miles above Tintern Abbey’ (which is an autobiographical poem written when he revisited the Wye area which filled him with a ‘tranquil restoration’), ‘The Thorn ‘etc. Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800) includes poems like ’She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’ (which is the best known of his Lucy poems) , ‘Lucy Gray’,’ I Travelled among Unknown Men’,’ Michael’ and ‘The Two April Mornings’. Poems, in Two Volumes (1807) includes’ Resolution and Independence’,’ I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’’ or ‘The Daffodils’ (which is a recounting of an experience with Dorothy when they chanced upon a ‘long belt’ of daffodils),’ Ode on the Intimations of immortality’( a deeply philosophical ode to childhood), ‘Ode to Duty’, ‘The Solitary Reaper’, ‘London 1802’, ‘The World is Too Much with Us’( which is a sonnet criticising the material excesses of the modern world which has distanced itself from nature), etc. ‘The Prelude or Growth of a Poet’s Mind’ is of course his most famous poem which is deeply autobiographical as I have mentioned earlier. Let us now look at’ The Solitary Reaper’.

LET US KNOW

Wordsworth says Ode on the Intimations of Immortality: “The child is the father of Man”. It is a characteristic Romantic idea that says that youth is richer in insight and wisdom than the age.


CHECK YOUR PROGRESS


1. What is the autobiographical poem written by Wordsworth?
2. When was The Lyrical Ballads published? Why is this volume important?
3. What kind of themes and language, can you say, are typical of Wordsworth?



THE TEXT OF THE POEM



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 [ chant]
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travelers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In springtime 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 or 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.



Context  of  the  Poem


The Solitary Reaper is one of the best known lyric poems of Wordsworth. It was composed in 1805 and was first published in Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807. Wordsworth along with Dorothy and Coleridge undertook a tour of the Highlands of Scotland and the delightful pastoral scenery left a deep impression on his mind. This memorable tour was instrumental in providing him with some of the most beautiful themes for his poems. You will be surprised to know however that Wordsworth never wrote down his immediate impressions as poems. Rather, he let them sink into his mind where these impressions and feelings remained till they were used by his imagination for poetic creation. He believed that if the poet wrote down his immediate feelings, he would not be able to do justice to his composition. The poem in this unit was also inspired by what he saw in the Scottish Highlands. Wordsworth describes in the first person how he was moved by the sight of a lone girl who was singing as she was reaping grain in a solitary field. Dorothy in her diary had quoted that solitary reapers were not an uncommon sight in the Highlands. In a note to the 1807 edition, however, Wordsworth acknowledged his indebtedness to his friend, Thomas Wilkinson’s manuscript from a tour of Scotland.

CHECK YOUR PROGRESS



1. In which year was The Solitary Reaper published?
2. Why do you think Wordsworth did not write down his immediate impressions as poems?


The  Explanation  of  the  Poem


The Solitary Reaper is an astonishingly simple poem. As mentioned earlier, of all the poets who have written about Nature, it is perhaps Wordsworth who is the most faithful in his presentation of Nature and of all things natural. He considers Nature to be a living God whose spirit “rolls through all things”. There is an inherent narrative element in the poem. It begins with the poet asking the reader to stop awhile and listen to the melodious song of the solitary Highland girl who is busy reaping corn, or to go away without making any sound: “Behold her, single in the field/…….Reaping and singing by herself/ Stop here, or gently pass!” The song of the girl fills the entire valley with its melodious strains (“……..the vale profound/ Is overflowing with the sound.”) The poet seems to be mesmerized by the Highland girl’s song.

The second stanza tries to draw a comparison between the girl’s song and that of the nightingale and the cuckoo. You must surely have heard the cuckoo’s sweet song sometime in your life. Well, Wordsworth feels that the girl is singing a song whose notes are as sweet as those of a cuckoo or a nightingale. The poet is of the view that the nightingale’s song provides comfort to the weary travellers amidst the Arabian deserts: “No Nightingale did ever chaunt/ More welcome notes to weary bands/……..Among Arabian sands.” He also feels that the song of the Highland girl is similar to the spring song of the cuckoo whose notes can be heard as far as Hebrides, an island off the coast of Scotland.

But Wordsworth is at a loss to understand the meaning of the song. She seems to be singing in an unknown tongue, perhaps in the Gaelic language. There is nobody beside him who can unravel the subject of the girl’s song. He expresses his feelings thus: “Will no one tell me what she sings?” Being helpless, he can only guess at its meaning. Her song, he muses, could be about some past unhappiness (“….old, unhappy, far-off things”), some battles fought in the past (“…battles long ago.”). Or, perhaps, her song, could be about commonplace or universal thing of life (“…..familiar matter of to-day?”).

Later, however, he dismisses his own musings: “Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang/ As if her song could have no ending”) - and reverts his attention to the song. He listens to the song again before finally continuing on his journey, leaving the girl and her song behind. Though he cannot hear the song anymore, it reverberates in his mind and its “strains” will forever remain fresh in his heart.

Wordsworth feels that we are so much caught up in our routine lives that we have no time to devote to the beauty of nature. Do you not feel the same thing? But Wordsworth is of the opinion that it is in the natural pleasures of life that man can expect and find immense joy and happiness. The beauty of nature is one of the abiding themes of the poem. The Solitary Reaper is also an example of the perfect harmony between man and nature. The girl, reaping and singing, is not in any way disturbed by the silent valley; rather the valley seems to reverberate with the melodious notes of the song. On the other hand, the valley is also silent and meditative. In such an atmosphere, a person is bound to feel nostalgic, as can be guessed from the song of the girl that tells of “……old, unhappy, far-off things, / And battles long ago:” Nature, according to Wordsworth, is a mighty, living force and is beneficial to man. His poems are about the joys and sorrows of common people, not of princes or heroes. He also says that the keynote of all life is happiness, which can be found only in nature. Wordsworth is of the opinion that the crowded life of the cities is bound to weaken humanity and Nature is the only repose for the woes and worries of human life. So, why don’t you take some time out of your daily routine and enjoy the beauty of nature?

LET US KNOW

The chief characteristics of Romantic poetry are:
1. A return to nature.
2. Highly imaginative.
3. Mysticism.
4. Love for beauty.
5. Subjectivity.
6. Use of common language of rural people.

 

ACTIVITY



1. Can you think of any experience in your life where you were greatly influenced by the beauty of nature?
2. Read John Keats’s poem Ode To Autumn and try to see how he portrays nature in the poem.
3. Can you think of any other English poet writing poems on Nature? Choose another Nature- poem and compare it with The Solitary Reaper.


CHECK YOUR PROGRESS


1. Why does the poet fail to understand the Highland girl’s song?
2. To what does the poet compare the song of the girl?
3. “Or is it some more humble ………” (Fill in the blank).
4. “No ……..did ever chaunt”. (Fill in the blank).




 

Poetic Techniques



As mentioned earlier, Romantic poetry is highly imaginative. The Solitary Reaper gives full play to the imagination in the sense that since the poet is at a loss to understand the meaning of the song, he tries to guess what the girl is singing about. He wonders whether the song is about “battles long ago” or some “familiar matter of today”. It can also be about “some natural sorrow, loss or pain”. The uncertainty of meaning is what gives the poem its beauty and richness.

The poem is in the present tense (“Reaping and singing by herself….Alone she cuts and binds the grain”), but from the fourth and last stanza, it becomes clear that Wordsworth is talking about an incident which had taken place before its telling (“Whate’er the theme the Maiden sang…..I listened, motionless and still”). There is, however, a smooth transition from the present to the past.

Here, you can refer to what I have told you earlier about how the poet should write a creative piece only when his emotions and feelings have become embedded in his mind. Wordsworth while keeping in mind this premise has given us a lovely poem.

The poem is full of imagery. There are some exquisite images in the poem. Can you not visualize the girl “reaping and singing by herself” as Wordsworth stops awhile on the Highlands? But we are taken to the past referring to battles fought long ago and we are transported to the “farthest Hebrides” by way of describing the song of the girl. Both the images are quite appropriate and simple.

Wordsworth, without trying to give moral lessons and without being too suggestive, has given us a poem which is pithy and at the same time passionate. The poem evokes deep thoughts in our mind and we find ourselves carried away by the emotion which it gives rise to in our hearts. The song remains in Wordsworth’s as well as in our hearts “long after it was heard no more”.

LET US KNOW

A similarity has been pointed out between The Solitary Reaper and another poem by Wordsworth, Resolution and Independence, in the sense that in both the poems the poet expresses his reaction to a solitary person, in the lap of Nature. In the latter poem, he really met a solitary person (the leech- gatherer), but in the former, he saw a solitary person (the reaping and singing girl) from a distance. (Sarker: 2003, 184)

ACTIVITY


1. Can you find the rhyme- scheme used by the poet in the poem? How many stanzas are there in the poem?
2. Read Lucy Gray or Solitude by Wordsworth and see if you can draw any similarities between The Solitary Reaper and the former poem.
3. Do you think Wordsworth has really seen the solitary reaper, or is she a figment of his fertile imagination?



CHECK YOUR PROGRESS



1. Resolution and Independence is a poem by …….. (Fill in the blank).
2. Which image is the most important in giving us the beauty of the girl’s song?

 




STYLE AND LANGUAGE



Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction states that poetry should be written in the language of the common people because their language is not artificial and is more at one with their environment. He believed that the purest poetry is written in the simplest language. The Solitary Reaper is a good instance of this belief. Since his language is devoid of any ornamentation, its effect depends solely on his strength of feeling and imagination. In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he asserts that ‘there neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of Prose and Verse’.

The Solitary Reaper is one of Wordsworth’s most famous post- Lyrical Ballads poems. It is so astonishingly simple that you will be quite surprised by it. But therein lies Wordsworth’s absolute genius because in his simplicity, there is a hint of complexity. He makes us contemplate on the relation between man and nature and this gives the poem its quiet intensity.

ACTIVITY


1. Read Ode To Autumn by Keats and try to compare his use of language in the poem with that of Wordsworth in The Solitary Reaper.
2. Where do you think lies the greatness of Wordsworth as a poet- in his use of language or his profound thoughts?


CHECK YOUR PROGRESS


1. Why, according to the poet, should poetry be written in the language of the common people?
2. Ode To Autumn is a poem by Wordsworth. (True/False).


LET US SUM UP


After going through this unit, you have learnt that Wordsworth was one of the eminent figures of the Romantic Movement in the history of English literature. He gave the highest place to Nature and he found inspiration in her bounties. You have learnt about his life and works and also about his belief that nature is a living force. This is called pantheism. The Solitary Reaper is a recollection of Wordsworth’s experience in the Scottish Highlands when he saw a solitary girl singing and reaping corn by herself. You have learnt about the poetic techniques employed by the poet and also about how this poem is a reflection of “emotions recollected in tranquility”. Besides this, you have also learnt that the language of poetry must be in keeping with the language of the common man according to Wordsworth. The prescribed poem exemplifies this belief of the poet.

FURTHER READINGS



1. Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature. Vol 4 New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2001.
2. Legouis, Emile. A Short History of English Literature. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1994.
3. Long, W. J. English Literature: Its History and Significance. New Delhi: Kalyani Publishers, 1997.
4. Sarker, Sunil Kumar. A Companion to William Wordsworth. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2003.
5. Ousby, Ian. Companion to Literature in English. London: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

POSSIBLE QUESTIONS



1. What is the central idea of the poem The Solitary Reaper?
2. To what does Wordsworth compare the song of the solitary reaper?
3. “No nightingale did ever chaunt [chant]/ More welcome notes to weary bands.” Explain with reference to the context.
4. “Will no one tell me what she sings?” What are the guesses that the poet makes about the subject matter of the song?
5. “The music in my heart I bore/ Long after it was heard no more.” What is referred to here? What effect does it have on the poet’s mind?
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