This manuscript copy of William Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, later published in Poems in Two Volumes (1807), is preserved at the British Library as part of the correspondence and papers of Thomas Wilkinson, the man whose writing inspired it.
Who was Thomas Wilkinson and how did he inspire ‘The Solitary Reaper’?
Thomas Wilkinson was a Lake District landowner. In 1787 he visited Scotland, and his Tours of the British Mountains is one of the earliest accounts of what was then a relatively inaccessible area. In it, Wilkinson describes a moment in which he,
Passed a female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse [a Scottish variant of the Gaelic language] 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.
Though Wilkinson’s account was not printed until 1824, Wordsworth, who had visited Scotland himself in 1803, read it in manuscript, and wrote ‘The Solitary Reaper’ around 5 November 1805.
How did this copy get to the British Library?
This copy – written and initialled in Wordsworth’s own hand – was made between 7 November and 14 December 1805. It was then either given or sent to Wilkinson.
How close is it to the version printed in 1807?
In verse 2, line 5, we can see that ‘sound’ has been replaced with ‘voice’. Though it is close to the 1807 version, Wordsworth subsequently made subtle rhythmical changes by rearranging commas, colons and exclamation marks before sending it to the printers.
Behold her, single in the field;
Yon solotary 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
So sweetly to reposing bands
Of Travellers in some shady haunt
Among Arabian sands.
No sweeter sound ^ voice was every heard
In springtime 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 today
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been & may be again.
Whate’er the theme The Maiden sung
As if her song could have no ending
I saw her singing at her work
And o’er the sickle bending
I listen’d till I had my fill
And as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Romanticism, London
Wordsworth’s vision of London’s serene beauty was composed on the roof of a coach – the poet was en route to France to meet his illegitimate daughter Caroline for the first time. Professor John Mullan explores the background to the poem.
- Article by:
- Sally Bushell
William Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Ruined Cottage’ tells the tale of a family torn apart by circumstances beyond their control. Professor Sally Bushell charts the decline of person through place in the poem.
- Article by:
- Philip Shaw
Professor Philip Shaw considers the composition of 'Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey', and explains how Wordsworth uses nature to explore ideas of connection and unity.
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