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Elaine Wong

Mrs. K. Loll

AP English IV

11 February 2008

"The Solitary Reaper" Poetry Explication

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


More welcome notes to weary bands 10
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In spring-time 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: 20
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and 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 30
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more. 1798.
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This poem presents three main internal conflicts concerning the speaker's perception of

nature and the reality of the setting. Firstly, the speaker illustrates the beauty and sonority of the

lass' song despite the "melancholy strain" (6) she is undergoing simultaneously. In addition, the

speaker's wish to understand the girl's song is widely in discord with the fact that the song may

lose its beauty if he were to comprehend it. This internal conflict is detailed in stanza three when

the speaker presents a variety of suppositions concerning the subject of the music. Lastly, he

presents his experience as though he were presently seduced in the "plaintive numbers" (18)

although it has been years since he had heard the songs. These emotional conflicts strongly bind

the poem together and gives it the coherence that makes it memorable.

"The Solitary Reaper" consists mainly of 4-foot lines. However, the fourth line of each

stanza is written in iambic trimeter. The work generally follows a rigid meter. However, it

deviates from the structure in at least one line of each stanza. The poet uses an ababccdd rhyme

scheme in each stanza but does not rhyme the first and third lines of the first and last stanzas.

Both the subject and the meter takes the form of a ballad. By beginning the piece in a ballad

structure, the poet suggests the piece tells a story of the speaker's encounter of the girl. The fact

that ballads can usually are sung brings irony into the work. This poem illustrates the beautiful

music the lass makes through her songs; by making the poem itself into an elegant song, the

speaker creates incongruity in the very backbone of the piece.

The ballad commences with a blatant praising of the "solitary Highland Lass" (2).

Through the use of this concise description, the poet presents the readers with his image of the

protagonist in the poem. The poet chooses to capitalize the words "Highland" and "Lass" in this

phrase. By doing so, the poet allows the speaker's reverence toward the young lady to shine

through. Moreover, instead of using a condescending term such as "girl, to describe the solitary
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reaper, the speaker chooses "lass". This word connotes a girl who is young, yet mature and

experienced. It is apparent that the speaker is aware of the hardships the girl is going through as

she sings these songs. However, the speaker chooses to treat her like a saint. He instructs people

who encounter her to "Stop here, or gently pass" (4), as if she were an exhibit in a museum. The

speaker cleverly places these apotheosizing phrases between lines which describe her work:

"Reaping and singing by herself" (3) and "Alone she cuts and binds the grain" (5). In doing so,

the poet vividly depicts the conflict between the lass' superhuman seductive facade and the

nature of her work in reality.

In the second stanza, the speaker shifts from detailing his encounter with the girl to an

extended analogy between the solitary reaper's song and a bird's song. The speaker draws on the

experiences of readers to connect the "welcome notes" of a nightingale and "thrilling [sounds]"

of a cuckoo to the girl's voice. In doing so, the speaker vividly illustrates the perceptible beauty

of the song. However, just as he cannot understand the subject and meaning of a bird's song, he

does not comprehend the ideas present in the lyrics of the lass' song. Nevertheless, music is a

universal beauty that is comprehended by all. Despite the fact that he cannot decipher the

meaning in the work, the speaker is still able to enjoy the harmonious sounds that come from the

girl's lips. The figurative language the speaker uses in this section of the ballad allows him to

demonstrate his internal conflict while experiencing the girl's song. At the end of the stanza, the

speaker references the "Hebrides" (16), which is a string of islands off the coast of Scotland.

This link ties this stanza back to the beginning of the poem. The Hebrides, being so far as almost

unattainable, can be viewed as majestic and mysterious. These two adjectives describe the

solitary reaper accurately. By using this image as a connection back to the subject of the ballad,

the speaker provides for a smooth transition to the mood of the third paragraph.
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The third stanza serves to portray the speaker's internal struggles as he listens to the

solitary reaper's song. Many of the lines in this section consist of rhetorical questions: "Will no

one tell me what she sings?" (17); "Or is it some more humble lay, / Familiar matter of to-day?"

(21-22); "Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain, / That has been, and may be again?" (23-24). These

contribute to the structure of this unique stanza and draw the reader's attention to the central

conflicts of the poem. Despite the fact that learning the meaning of the lass' song may shatter the

fragile guise of her music, the speaker appears to wish to face reality and learn "what she sings"

(17). In addition, his references to time lapse, "matter of to-day" (22) and "has been, and may be

again" (24), foreshadow what the speaker will reveal in the final stanza. The poet refers to the

lass' songs as "plaintive numbers" (18). Literally, this phrase is synonymous to "melancholy

strain" (6). However, the diction he uses in this line changes the connotation of the phrase.

Although the denotation of "plaintive" suggests sadness and mourning, the root of the word

allows readers to conjure other images. The solitary reaper is seen by many as a "plain" figure.

She is, after all, a simplistic country girl who is tending to her crops. By allowing this secondary

meaning to slip into the poem, the poet allows his ballad to take on different interpretations. This

use of diction further contributes to the conflicts in this poem. The song the girl sings may be

very moving for the observer, but for her, it may very well be just another way to pass time

during her monotonous work. The speaker also deviates from the rigid meter in the final line of

this stanza (24). Although he uses the same number of syllables, the poet changes the metric

pattern to one that is roughly anapestic, suggesting the effect of time on every aspect of life.

The last stanza of the ballad unites the different aspects of emotional conflict the speaker

presents in the poem. The poet repeats the description of the scene in order to allow the ballad to

come to a full circle as it closes. He concedes to the fact that he will never understand the
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subject of the lass' song. However, he continues to listen to the song and imagine the beauty it

suggests. The last two lines of the poem are essential to fully grasp the meaning of the ballad as

a whole: "The music in my heart I bore / Long after it was heard no more" (33-34). In the

second to last line, the speaker uses a metonymy by utilizing his "heart" to represent his entire

self and inner soul. The speaker's claim is a lyrical way of stating that the lass' song touched his

soul. Here, it is apparent that the speaker has resolved a primary conflict apparent in the poem.

He realizes that the lass is poor, and that the song may very well be the only thing of beauty in

her existence. However, he relishes his experience listening to her, as the music really touched

his soul. In addition, the last lines allow readers to understand the final conflict the poem

presents. Until this point in the ballad, it is not apparent that the song was written "long after"

the speaker had listened to the song. By gaining this piece of information, readers can now

understand that the poet has long returned to reality and has removed himself from the magic of

the song. In this way, the poet accentuates the internal conflict between the imaginary and

reality.