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Don't fear the reaper, Shmoopers. We're here to break it all down for you.
In August of 1803, William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge embarked on a walking tour of the Scottish Highlands. Now if you think a nice backpacking tour through Scotland sounds like a blast, consider this: the journey lasted about 6 weeks, and covered about 660 miles (that's 110 miles a week, or around 15 miles a day). Now maybe 15 miles a day for three days is okay, but for 6 straight weeks? It wasn't easy, to say the least, despite the fact that Wordsworth and Coleridge were used to walking. Toss in the fact that the part of Scotland they were passing through was relatively rural. Roads were bad, even dangerous on occasion, and lodging wasn't always easy to find (especially when it was cold and rainy).
Nevertheless, the trip was definitely inspiring. Upon returning to England, Dorothy wrote a book about the trip that was published (much later) in 1874. While Dorothy's charming little travel narrative was making the rounds, her bro was writing a bunch of poems that he would later describe as "written during a tour in Scotland." One of these poems was "The Solitary Reaper," which was first published in 1807 along with all those others supposedly written during the tour. The book in which they all appeared was called Poems, in Two Volumes (not the catchiest of titles, but what are you gonna do?).
Now we say "supposedly" because, well, we know Wordsworth actually wrote "The Solitary Reaper" in 1805, nearly 2 years after said tour was completed. Okay, so he wanted his readers to believe he wrote the poem while on location, we get that. What about the issue of the reaper herself? Did Wordsworth actually see a woman singing and reaping all along in some highland field? The short answer is… well, no. Wordsworth actually wrote a note to the poem where he talks about where he got the whole idea from: "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."
That manuscript (MS) was an early version of a book later published in 1824 as Tours to the British Mountains, by Wordsworth's friend Thomas Wilkinson. (You can take a peek at Wilkinson's book right here.) The relevant passage in Wilkinson, just in case you're wondering, is on page 12: "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."
So, Wordsworth was inspired by his trip to Scotland and all the cool things he saw there and by his buddy's travel book. The poem, just like Wilkinson's Tour, is all about stumbling upon something that, well, is extraordinarily moving. Even though the speaker has no clue what the woman is singing about, he is totally floored by her song, so floored that he carries the song in his heart with him long after he has moved on. More than just a reflection on a strangely beautiful moment, however, the poem is a subtle statement about the multi-ethnic makeup of the British Isles. The woman is singing in Erse (Scottish Gaelic) and is culturally and linguistically different from the speaker, who is an Englishman. "The Solitary Reaper," then, is about diversity and about how strange it is to be a part of the same empire with such vastly different people, but also about celebrating that diversity.
Ever been to the opera, Shmoopers? Yeah, we hear you: it's expensive, and you're definitely expected to dress nicely (leave the ripped jeans at home if you plan on going to see Aida anytime soon). You also better pack your Google translate app. That's because all of the songs are sung in languages that are never, ever in English—like, ever. Yep, all the legit, famous operas that people pay big money to see—Don Giovanni, Aida, Carmen, La Traviata—are in other languages (usually Italian).
Now, how many people that listen to opera actually understand Italian, you might ask? Not very many, but, you see, it doesn't matter. While the lyrics are usually quite powerful, understanding the words really isn't that important. So many people who have enjoyed opera over the past 500 years haven't understood a thing, and yet they've been moved in ways they never thought possible. Watch this video of our boy Pavarotti performing one of the most famous pieces ever ("Nessun Dorma," from Turandot). If you're not weeping by the end, well… just watch it again until you are.
Of course, the highland lass in "The Solitary Reaper" is not Pavarotti. Nothing William Wordsworth ever wrote even remotely resembles opera either. However, the speaker's encounter with the woman singing is just like most people's encounter with an incredible, operatic performance. Most of us will listen to Pavarotti and find ourselves completely floored by the beauty and power of the sounds, even if we don't understand the words. Other languages can be unbelievably gorgeous, and human beings can pick up on that—even if the exact meaning is beyond them. The speaker of the "The Solitary Reaper" takes the experience with him, just like we can take Pavarotti with us.
Here's one other thing to consider: "The Solitary Reaper" also says, essentially, that you don't have to go drop 200 bucks on a ticket to the opera to get something of the same experience. This woman singing a beautiful song is out in a field going about her business. She's a regular peasant girl, not a highly-trained opera singer. The speaker implies that you don't have to go that far to have an incredibly moving experience. (Wordsworth only had to take a short trip up to the Highlands.) So get out there, Shmoopers, and keep your ears tuned for beauty like our speaker does here.
The Complete Wordsworth
It might take you ten years to read all of these, but it would sure be worth it.
If you don't feel like reading a whole, book-length biography, this will definitely do temporarily.
Romanticism, in a Nutshell
Check out this great overview of the major themes of Romanticism.
What About Scotland?
Well, you really can't talk about Romanticism without talking about Scotland now can you?
Tour the Lake District
Fancy a scenic tour? Try this place, where Wordsworth lived for a long time.
Want to learn more about our poet? Check out this documentary (in two parts).
She reads a little fast, but the cool animation makes up for it.
Here's a reading of the poem by a dude with a perfect British voice.
The Solitary Librivox'er
Yep, the massive audio website has a version of this poem, too.
Deep in Thought
Well, our man's definitely solitary, but it doesn't look like he's doing any reaping.
Here's a famous depiction of the poet.
A Solitary Reaper
This painting looks pretty Romantic to us, too.
Poems, in Two Volumes
This is what you would have seen when you opened Wordsworth's book in 1807.
They look pretty, but kind of cold.
Who knew? Apparently our man was also a bit of real estate tycoon.
Norton Critical Edition
Here's a new edition of many of Wordsworth's most famous poems—just fabulous.
Here's a film about the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge. It looks a little scary now, doesn't it?