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Literature

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Wordsworth's preface to the 1800 Lyrical Ballads argues that poetry "contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents." It ought not be judged by the presence of artificial, poetic diction. Rather, "the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society" can be its medium. "The Solitary Reaper" exemplifies these beliefs.

Written seven years after Lyrical Ballads, it describes a nameless listener's delight in a young woman's melancholy song in an unknown language as, working by herself in a Scottish valley, she swings a sickle, reaping grain. Four eight-line stanzas, each closing with two couplets and all written in octosyllabic lines, have a musical lilt. Short lines deliver the rhymes at a quick pace. Sentences normally need two or more such short lines to complete, so that few lines are strongly end-stopped; most freely enjamb. Diction is conversational. Often lines consist mainly of monosyllabic words (4-5, 13, 17, 21, 24, 27, 30-32). Wordsworth prefers common verbs, "behold," "reap," "sing," "stop," "pass," "cut," "bind," "chant," "hear," and "break." Words imported into English from Latin or Greek, like "solitary" and "melancholy" or forms with "-ive" and "-ion" endings (e.g., "plaintive" and "motionless"), are infrequent.

Wordsworth writes plain, almost undemanding verse. For example, he repeats the simplest idea in varying words. The girl is "single," "solitary," and "by herself" (1-3). She is "reaping" (3), that is, "cuts and binds the grain" (5), "o'er the sickle bending" (28). The onlooker is both "motionless and still" (29). The lass "sings" (3, 17, 25, 27) or does "chant" (9) a "strain" (6), a "lay" (21), or "a song" (26). The speaker relies on everyday idioms, worn to vagueness by overuse in ordinary talk. Her "theme" (25) is of "things" (19) or "matter" (22) "That has been, and may be again" (24). This excludes only what never existed at all. Whenever the speaker might become elevated in speech, his language seems prosaic, even chatty: "Will no one tell me ..." (17), "Whate're the theme" (25), and "Long after it was heard no more" (32). Wordsworth notes, pointedly, that this last line comes verbatim from a prose travel book.

"The Solitary Reaper" does not implement, programmatically, his dogma of plain diction. For example, "Vale profound" (7), "plaintive numbers" (18), and "humble lay" (21) are semi-formulaic catch phrases in the very eighteenth-century verse whose artificiality he rejects. These exceptions may be deliberate, characterizing the speaker (not Wordsworth) as someone for whom poetry means much. He resorts to formulas as if to hint that the girl's song is out-of-place in the valley, however separated from the traditions of fine verse by her class, occupation, and location. Wordsworth may deliberately impoverish his speaker's language so as to contrast it with the reaper's song.

Unlike other poets, this lass sings alone, isolated from both her predecessors

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