Alone she cuts and binds the grain, and sings a melancholy strain

William Wordsworth - The Solitary Reaper

Dorothy and her brother's tour of Scotland inspired William to write seventeen poems. Dorothy included nine of them in her Recollections. Among the finest is The Solitary Reaper. The source of that poem was the following description in Dorothy's travelogue.
As we descended, the scene became more fertile, our way being pleasantly varied through coppices or open fields, and passing farm-houses, though always with an intermixture of uncultivated ground. 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. The following poem was suggested to William by a beautiful sentence in Thomas Wilkinson's Tour in Scotland.

Here Dorothy records her impression of the reapers at Loch Voil in a matter-of-fact note. Then she quickly gives the floor to her brother, who uses the rural scene to capture the atmosphere of the Highlands in one unforgettable image. He does not speak of 'small companies of reapers', like Dorothy, but of one solitary reaper. 'Alone she cuts and binds the grain, And sings a melancholy strain.' The girl's voice fills the whole valley, says the poem, breaking the silence as the cuckoo breaks the silence on the remote Hebrides after a long dark winter. What would this solitary reaper sing about, the poet wonders? About long past battles, old sorrows or just of common, everyday affairs?

      The Solitary Reaper

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

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:

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,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

Long before the Wordsworths went to Scotland, they had a keen interest in the oral culture of the country, in the stories and songs that the Scots had feasted beside and passed on by the fire for centuries. Scottish poets like Robert Burns were among their favourites. On the fourth day of their stay, they visited his grave in Dumfries. At the end of their tour, they paid a visit to Sir Walter Scott, the poet, writer and collector of historical ballads. Listening to Scottish stories and songs in the country of origin was one of the reasons to travel. In The Solitary Reaper William sums up the whole ballad culture by listing the main themes of the old Scottish songs. At the same time, he manages to evoke their melancholy tone by having a Highland lass singing at her work all alone in the field. He emphasises her solitude - which is different from loneliness - in the vast hills through association with far off empty deserts and isolated islands. By comparing her chanting to the singing of cuckoo and nightingale, he also suggests that this human being is as much a part of its natural environment as these melodious birds.

Dorothy writes that William was inspired to compose The Solitary Reaper by a beautiful sentence in Thomas Wilkinson's Tour in Scotland. Wilkinson, an acquaintance of the Wordsworths, had visited Scotland sixteen years earlier and wrote the following impression in his travelogue:

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. 

William read these lines two years after his own stay in Scotland. He himself had not seen a singing solitary reaper, only companies of reapers. One indication of this is Dorothy's comment that 'you see one man or woman doing this work in more remote parts of the Highlands', so somewhere else than near Loch Voil, in the Trossachs. Nor does she write that the reapers were singing. They probably wouldn't have, Dorothy would never miss the opportunity to describe such a catchy scene in detail. Her brief note suggests that what they saw was not very special and therefore did not make a special impression. It took a striking picture from another travel journal to prompt William to write a poem that blends everything he and his sister had experienced in Scotland: from unexpected encounters with Highlanders in desolate landscapes, to the music of their language - the Erse -, the sound of their ballads, and especially the melancholy that permeated the land of peat, rain and spectacular evening skies.

Symbolic representation

Wordsworth borrowed a picture of Wilkinson for his poem and elevated it to a symbolic representation of traditional Scottish life. To achieve this, he imagined the content to his own liking. But not only that. He also reinforced the Scottish character of The Solitary Reaper through his choice of form. The poem contains many elements of the ballad, such as the structure in four verses of eight lines, the rhyme scheme (predominantly ababccdd), the meter (an iambic tetrameter - each line has four feet consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by an stressed syllable), masculine rhyme (the lines end with a stressed rhyming syllable), the archaic words (yon, chaunt), and the four-line stanza: the so-called envoi.

In fact, you may say the same about The Solitary Reaper as what William said about the little boy he and his sister had seen at Loch Lomond two weeks earlier, alone on a hill, in mist, at nightfall while calling his cows together in Gaelic. According to Dorothy, her brother then called that scene 'containing in itself the whole history of the Highlander’s life - his melancholy, his simplicity, his poverty, his superstition, and above all, that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature'. Likewise, you may read the scene of the girl at Loch Voil, alone on a hill, singing in Erse while cutting the grain, as an emblematic text, as a description of a detail, representing a whole.

Index  Dorothy Wordsworth

Tour in Scotland