10 December 2011 @ 03:30 pm
will no one tell me? or, throwing words away (revisited)  
Despite small alterations in its form, William Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” retains its function as a ballad. Typically, ballads are composed of quatrains with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter and a rhyme scheme of ABCB. Instead, “The Solitary Reaper” consists of four octaves, eight-line stanzas, with lines that are for the most part in iambic tetrameter. And while the first four lines of each octave retain the ballad rhyme scheme, the last four lines are two couplets. Functioning as a ballad, “The Solitary Reaper” is a narrative: the speaker of the poem tells of a lone girl whom he witnesses reaping the season’s harvest. Though he never approaches the stranger like the wandering narrators of most Wordsworth’s ballads, he fixates on the song which she sings and he overhears. It is the girl, the solitary reaper’s, song that provides the basis for the rest of the poem.

In the first stanza, the narrator calls attention to not only the girl whom he never meets but also to the fact that she is alone and that she is singing. He refers to her as “single in the field,” “solitary Highland Lass,” “by herself,” and “alone” (Lines 1 – 3, 5). He describes her as “reaping and singing,” she “sings a melancholy strain,” and the surroundings as “overflowing with the sound” (Lines 3, 6, 8).

The second stanza focuses on the girl’s song, comparing it to that of the nightingale and cuckoo (Lines 9, 14). However, while her singing may surpass those of the birds he mentions, the narrator seems unable, or rather sees no need, to properly pin down a description of her song and singing, for his comparisons stretch from “Arabian sands” to “the farthest Hebrides” (Lines 12, 16).

The reason for his fanciful and far-reaching descriptions is revealed in the several questions he asks in the third stanza: the words are incomprehensible to him due to the language in which she sings them rather than their physical proximity. Thus the third stanza begins “Will no one tell me what she sings?” (Line 17) He goes on to ask if she sings “for old, unhappy, far-off things, / And battles long ago,” of “more humble … familiar matters of to-day,” or of “natural sorrow, loss, or pain” (Lines 19 – 23).

He concludes in the fourth and final stanza that what the solitary reaper lyrically/literally sang of matters for very little for he nevertheless watched and listened. More importantly, both he and the girl have an emotional connection with the song despite their separate, individual experiences, for “the Maiden sang / As if her song could have no ending” and “the music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more” (Lines 25 – 26, 31 – 32).

It is this potential for music to be beautiful in its expressiveness that serves as the premise for Wordsworth’s argument regarding the poetic use of language. The incomprehensibility of the girl’s song demonstrates the limitations of language to convey meaning. According to Wordsworth, emotion should supersede content with regards to poetry. He believed that poetry, like song, should not rely on poetic, that is contrived, diction. Instead, poetry should be composed with ordinary language in a simple form to enable a broader range of people to appreciate and gain meaning, what he called a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion,” from it. The girl’s singing, for example, spurs his imagination of birds’ melodies and exotic places.

Though the emotional vein of her song stays, one that the narrator deems melancholic, it too leads him to wonder at the source of that emotion. Wordsworth himself demonstrates the compositional approachability of poetry. Most of the words he chose are monosyllabic. And due to the free enjambment of the lines (instead of strong end-stops), thoughts and sentences spanning over several lines, the poem feels conversational. And yet the poem remains lyrical as a ballad, the short lines with the particular rhyme scheme resulting in a quick pace.

Furthermore, the use of recurring themes and images is consistent with the ballad form. By emphasizing the concepts of solitude, music, and reaping, Wordsworth also manages to tie in the theme of nature found in many of his ballads. The narrator finds the girl as she engages in a seasonal practice. But because she is alone, she seems a part of the landscape; in spite of the fact that she sings by herself, her song somehow fills the landscape. The girl is constantly in motion with her work even as she sings, but the narrator remains motionless to listen to her sing in the same way Wordsworth’s wandering narrators stop to admire views of nature.

Greater still, her song touches on something within the narrator much like a beautiful landscape would. The emotional and imaginative response her song had evoked within him remains even after he’s gone and can no longer hear her. In this way, “The Solitary Reaper” seems to recall the “still, sad music of humanity” Wordsworth refers to in “Tintern Abbey,” the terminal poem of his and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s collection Lyrical Ballads (Line 91). While the time spans in the two poems differ—the time it takes to mount the hill and no longer be within listening distance in “The Solitary Reaper,” from childhood to adulthood in “Tintern Abbey”—the emphasis on the extent to which mere recollection can bring about an unwavering emotional response is the same.

"Reaping Emotional Meaning," UHM Fall '11