One of the books I read during my research for the Martha Books was Dorothy Wordsworth’s Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in A.D. 1803. The time period was just about right; Little House in the Highlands is set in 1795, and change came slowly to those remote glens.
Dorothy traveled with her brother, William, and their friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Ooh! Now there’s an idea for a novel!) In her journal she wrote,
“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 Wm. by a beautiful sentence in Thomas Wilkinson’s Tour in Scotland.”
And then she copied out William’s poem (written two years later), “The Solitary Reaper.”
A note in my Wm. Wordsworth collection tells me that the line from Thomas Wilkinson is this:
“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.”
I love to know the story behind a poem, a novel, a painting. Here is William’s poem, all the lovelier to me for knowing what sparked it in his mind.
The Solitary Reaper
by William Wordsworth
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 shrilling 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 listen’d, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
This week’s Poetry Friday round-up can be found at Hip Writer Mama.
What’s Poetry Friday? Susan Thomsen explains at PoetryFoundation.org.
Poetry Friday: The Water Is Wide
Unabridged Martha & Charlotte at Keller Books
“It butters no parsnips.”
Poetry Friday: Jane’s Choice
Sing, cuckoo, sing