The Solitary Reaper

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Wordsworth's Solitary Song: The Substance of " t r u e a r t " in " T h e Solitary R e a p e r . " GEOFFREY J . FINCH


T has become a truism in recent years that the Romantic poets were preoccupied with the fundamentals of their own poetic talents. Clearly, a view of poetry which places so much emphasis on the poet not as an interpreter, nor as a mirror, but as a creator of reality, must impose a severe self-consciousness on the individual artist, and it is not surprising that running through Romantic poetry there is a sense of awe, sometimes precipitated into uncertainty at the immense power of the imagination. Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," unlike his "Immortality ode," or Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," is not normally a poem which we associate with this turbulent introspection, nevertheless it has become increasingly apparent to admirers of Wordsworth's poetry that many of his short lyrics are self-reflective even when they seem least to be so. "The Solitary Reaper," I believe, provides us with a good instance of what we frequently feel to be true of his shorter poems, which is, that beneath the lyric grace there is a quite startling intensity of imaginative commitment. Wordsworth's imagination always transfigures what it touches, and in one important sense this particular poem is only marginally concerned with what appear to be its principal subjects; the reaper and her song. I want to look at the poem in some detail, for despite its apparent plainness I believe it to be a work in which Wordsworth meditates with considerable subtlety on the status of the creative act, and its importance as a



basic human endeavour. A s my discussion of the poem is, as I have said, fairly detailed, I think I ought to reproduce the entire text first of a l l : The Solitary Reaper B e h o l d her, single i n the field, Yon solitary Highland Lass! R e a p i n g a n d s i n g i n g b y herself; Stop here, or gently pass! A l o n e she cuts a n d binds the g r a i n , A n d sings a m e l a n c h o l y s t r a i n ; 0 l i s t e n ! f o r the V a l e profound Is o v e r f l o w i n g w i t h the sound. N o N i g h t i n g a l e did ever chaunt M o r e welcome notes to w e a r y bands Of t r a v e l l e r s i n some shady haunt, A m o n g A r a b i a n sands: A voice so t h r i l l i n g ne'er w a s heard I n spring-time f r o m the Cuckoo-bird, B r e a k i n g the silence of the seas A m o n g the farthest Hebrides. W i l l no one t e l l me w h a t she sings? P e r h a p s the p l a i n t i v e numbers flow F o r old, unhappy, far-off things, A n d battles l o n g ago: O r is it some m o r e h u m b l e lay, F a m i l i a r m a t t e r of to-day? Some n a t u r a l sorrow, loss, or pain, T h a t has been, a n d m a y be a g a i n ? W h a t e ' e r the theme, the M a i d e n s a n g A s i f h e r song could have no e n d i n g ; 1 s a w h e r s i n g i n g at h e r w o r k , A n d o'er the sickle b e n d i n g ; — I listened, motionless a n d s t i l l ; A n d , as I mounted u p the h i l l , T h e m u s i c i n m y heart I bore, L o n g after it w a s h e a r d no more. 1

Much of the power of this very haunting poem comes from a series of ironies or paradoxes which Wordsworth allows to emerge implicitly through the imagery and structure of the verse. A s G. Ingli James has remarked, we do not normally associate the use of irony or paradox with Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," but there seems to be no other way of describing the enigmatic quality of the poem. The first, and most obvious point, which we notice in reading it, is that for the first three stanzas the pretence is made that the incident is occurring in the present, 2




whereas in the fourth stanza the whole event is distanced by use of the past tense. More important than this, however, is the paradoxical nature of the song, which in substance is sad, but which does not produce sadness in the...
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