In the first stanza the speaker comes across a beautiful girl working alone in the fields of Scotland (the Highland). She is "Reaping and singing by herself." He tells the reader not to interrupt her, and then mentions that the valley is full of song.
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.
The second stanza is a list of things that cannot equal the beauty of the girl's singing:
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.
In the third stanza the reader learns that the speaker cannot understand the words being sung. He can only guess at what she might be singing about:
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?
In the fourth and final stanza the speaker tells the reader that even though he did not know what she was singing about, the music stayed in his heart as he continued up the hill:
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.
"The Solitary Reaper" was written on November 5, 1805 and published in 1807. The poem is broken into four eight-line stanzas (32 lines total). Most of the poem is in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme for the stanzas is either abcbddee or ababccdd. (In the first and last stanzas the first and third lines don't rhyme, while in the other two stanzas they do.)
This poem is unique in Wordsworth's oeuvre because while most of his work is based closely on his own experiences, "The Solitary Reaper" is based on the experience of someone else: Thomas Wilkinson, as described in his Tours to the British Mountains. The passage that inspired Wordsworth is the following: "Passed a female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse [the Gaelic language of Scotland] 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" (as qtd. in The Norton Anthology English Literature).
Part of what makes this poem so intriguing is the fact that the speaker does not understand the words being sung by the beautiful young lady. In the third stanza, he is forced to imagine what she might be singing about. He supposes that she may be singing about history and things that happened long ago, or some sadness that has happened in her own time and will happen again.
As the speaker moves on, he carries the music of the young lady with him in his heart. This is a prevalent theme in much of Wordsworth's poetry. For instance, the same idea is used in "I wandered lonely as a cloud" when the speaker takes the memory of the field of daffodils with him to cheer him up on bad days.