The Solitary Reaper

Original Text: 

William Wordsworth, Poems in Two Volumes (1807). See The Manuscript of William Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes (1807): A Facsimile (London: British Library, 1984). bib MASS (Massey College, Toronto).

3Reaping and singing by herself;
4Stop here, or gently pass!
5Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
6And sings a melancholy strain;
8Is overflowing with the sound.
10More welcome notes to weary bands
11Of travellers in some shady haunt,
12Among Arabian sands:
13A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
15Breaking the silence of the seas
17Will no one tell me what she sings?--
19For old, unhappy, far-off things,
20And battles long ago:
22Familiar matter of to-day?
23Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
24That has been, and may be again?
25Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
26As if her song could have no ending;
27I saw her singing at her work,
28And o'er the sickle bending;--
29I listened, motionless and still;
30And, as I mounted up the hill,
31The music in my heart I bore,
32Long after it was heard no more.


1] Coleridge, Wordsworth, and his sister had visited the Scottish Highlands in 1803. Dorothy's Recollections for September 13 that year notes: "It was harvest time, and the fields were quietly -- might I be allowed to say pensively? -- enlivened by small companies of reapers. It is not uncommon in the more lonely parts of the Highlands to see a single person so employed." In a note to the 1807 edition, Wordsworth traced the poem's source: "This Poem was suggested by a beautiful sentence in a MS Tour in Scotland written by a Friend, the last line being taken from it verbatim." Thomas Wilkinson's manuscript, Tours to the British Mountains (London, 1824), states: "Passed a Female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no more" (12). Back to Line
2] Highland: mountainous region in northern Scotland associated with the Celtic clans. Back to Line
7] Vale profound: broad, deep valley between two high ranges; possibly the world itself, as a place of suffering (OED "vale" 2b). Wordsworth takes this from conventional poetic diction; cf. Gilbert West's "Education. A Poem" (1751), lines 617-21:
On to the Centre of the Grove they stray'd;
Which, in a spacious Circle opening round,
Within it's shelt'ring Arms securely laid,
Disclosed to sudden View a Vale profound,
With Nature's artless Smiles and tranquil Beauties crown'd.
Back to Line
9] Nightingale: a small song-bird, well-known for the male's musical notes in the mating and nesting season. In Classical myth, the female nightingale is that to which Philomela, tragically raped and mutilated by her sister Procne's husband, metamorphoses on carrying out her revenge. Back to Line
14] Cuckoo-bird: song-bird migrating to Britain in the spring and associated with renewal. Cf. John Logan's "Ode to the Cuckoo" (1782) and "Spring" by Thomas Brerewood (-1748):
When the wood-pigeons sit on the branches and coo;
And the cuckoo proclaims with his voice,
That Nature marks this for the season to woo,
And for all that can love to rejoice ...
Back to Line
16] Hebrides: islands northwest of Scotland in the Atlantic. Back to Line
18] plaintive numbers: conventional poetic phrase, as in George Dyer's "Ode XIX. To a Young Painter and Poetess" (1801):
So may the foliage of thy spring
Be follow'd by the richest bloom;
Nor thou in plaintive numbers sing
To Genius, withering in the tomb.
Back to Line
21] humble lay: conventional poetic diction, as in Thomas Warton's "ODE V. To a Gentleman upon his Travels thro' Italy" (1747), lines 1-3:
While I with fond officious care,
For you my chorded shell prepare,
And not unmindful frame an humble lay ...
Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire; J. R. MacGillivray
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.386.