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The Solitary Reaper by William Wordsworth is a romantic ballad poem that is set in a rural area. According to Must See Scotland, Wordsworth got the inspiration to write the poem from a village in Scotland that he visited along with his sister in 1803. Below is a picture of that place.
The poem has been divided into four stanzas having 8 lines each and it follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDD.
The poet says that one day while traveling, he sees a lass (girl) far away on highland i.e. hilly area who was alone there. She is reaping the crops and singing songs by herself. The poet asks the passersby to stop there and listen to her or gently pass i.e. go away silently without disturbing her.
The solitary reaper is cutting and binding the grains and also singing a melancholy strain (sad song). The poet asks the passersby to listen to her as her song is so melodious and sad that the whole Vale profound (deep valley) is echoing with it.
In the second stanza, the poet compares the voice of the solitary reaper with that of the nightingale. Note that in Romantic Poetry the sound of the nightingale is described as very melodious and welcoming.
Before going forward let us try understanding the concept of Arabian Sands mentioned in this stanza. In Arab, the are deserts in which it takes months for people to cross them. Many times they forget the way or die because of the extreme heat of thirst.
In such a desert, if weary bands i.e. tired travelers who may be taking rest under shady haunt (i.e. shade of desert tree) happen to hear the nightingale’s chaunting (chanting), it will be the most joyful voice for them because they will come to know that it is the end of the dread desert.
The poet says that the voice of solitary reaper is more melodious and sweeter than that of nightingale’s voice mentioned above. Just think what brilliant example the poet has given!
Now the poet compares the singing of solitary reaper with the voice of Cuckoo-bird. According to the poet, the voice of solitary reaper was so melodious that he never heard it from the Cuckoo-bird in spring-time which breaks the silence of the seas among the farthest Hebrides (a group of 500 islands in Scotland).
Again here the poet is using the brilliant image. Just imagine how delighting the voice of nightingale would be in a dead silent sea after long winter. Again according the poet, the voice of solitary reaper is better even that sound of Cuckoo.
In this stanza, the poet is expressing his unfamiliarity with the language of the song sung by the solitary reaper. He wonders if there is anyone who will be able to tell him what she is singing.
He guesses that it might be plaintive numbers i.e. sad and mournful song in her own language (that of Scotland) which are about unhappy past or lost things or some battle which might have taken place long ago.
The poet again guesses that the song can also be about humble lay i.e. of ordinary nature and day to day matters. It can be some natural sorrow or loss or pain which might have taken place in her life recently or she might be fearing for facing it again.
In the final stanza, the poet says that whatever may be the theme of the song sung by the maiden (that solitary reaper), she sang so sweetly and profoundly that the poet wished it would never end.
The poet repeats the beginning scene. According to him, he saw her singing at her work (reaping the crops) and while she was bending her sickle over the crops. He listened to her silently and without making any movement. However, when he started traveling up the hill, he could not hear her and the music was inscribed in his heart.