Jeremy Prynne on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper

Over Xmas I read ‘The Solitary Reaper and Others’ which Prynne published in 2007. I’ve had an aversion to Wordsworth since having bits of The Prelude stuffed down my throat at school and I’ve never appreciated the Romantic project which still strikes me s being a bit adolescent. My primary motivation in reading this was that it may give further insight into Prynne’s poetry.

The first thing to be said is that, at 134 pages, this is a very big book for a 32-line poem. What is impressive is that none of Prynne’s critique can be considered either extraneous or the result of over-reading, it stays with the poem and doesn’t indulge in the extrapolation so common in some critics.

I have two major qualms about this poem, the first being that the experience of hearing the solitary reaper singing across the profound vale didn’t belong to Wordsworth, he’borrowed it fom his friend, Thomas Wlikinson. The second is that Wordsworth went on a 6 week walking tour of the Scottish Highlands with the express purpose of experiencing nature in the raw. According to Dorothy’s journals they came across some scenes of great poverty and Wordsworth must have known the appalling conditions in which agricultural labourers lived yet he makes no reference to this in the poem.

Prynne anticipates the second qualm and mounts a spirited defence which I will describe below. In this defence however, the first qualm is often overlooked which is a bit odd given the length of the book. What is less odd is the amount of space given to matters of perception and to the effect of hearing music.  Given Prynne’s fondness for showing us that things may be percieved in different ways and at different levels it comes as no surprise that he should place the importance of the aural/visual metric as central and explore this in great depth.

What is more surpprising is that he should explain the absence of reference to socio-economic conditions by suggesting that it was the reaper’s song and the experiencing of hearing it that transcends these circumstances for Wordsworth who wishes just to express that transcendental ‘effect’. This seems to ignore the fact that by 1803 the Highland Clearances were well under way- this is a term used by the English  to describe a process of ethnic cleansing whereby Gaelic communities and culture were obliterated from the Highlands.

Wordsworth would not be ignorant of this fact, indeed his sister’s journals from the trip do make reference to the effects of this cleansing. I have to admit that I’m not sympathetic to the view that poetry can lift us to another plane of consciousness and I am probably too rooted in the material world to be moved by any suggestion that it might. In my view poetry has the potential to suggest different ways of thinking and talking about the world but to give it any greater status is fundamentally delusional. Another quibble is that labourers sing songs in order to mae backbreaking and arduous work more bearable, this isn’t mentioned by Prynne.

The other issue is one of authenticity. As far as we know, Wordsworth did not actually hear the singing of the solitary reaper and we therefore must assume that the ‘ardency’ (a Prynne word) exists entirely in his imagination. Throughout the book I kept waiting for Prynne to deal with this opportunism with the same vigour as other subjects but he doesn’t and this failure (to my mind) indicates the wekness of the assertion about the trancendental powers of the song.

To conclude, this is a useful extended insight into the way Prynne thinks about both poetry and perception and as comprehensive study of one poem as you are likely to get. It is also very good to argue with, I’m not converted to Wordsworth but I am making my way through Dorothy’s journals which are wonderful.

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3 responses to “Jeremy Prynne on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper

  1. “According to Dorothy’s journals they came across some scenes of great poverty and Wordsworth must have known the appalling conditions in which agricultural labourers lived yet he makes no reference to this in the poem.”

    Are you kidding me? The entire poem is a dual illustration of these offenses against the Scottish people. Specifically it is an execution scene of rebels, but if you examine his wording more closely he gives reference to the horrors of kelp burning and more.

    I can’t believe how many people overlook the beautiful puzzle of this melancholy poem.

    MAIDEN is a Scottish guillotine. Now re-read and break it down and pay attention to the capitalization next time when examining poetry.

    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.

    Now quite literally he is walking away as the crys continue of men being executed.

    As far as it not being a genuine experience of his or not, the bard often sings of others: does he not?

  2. Guilty as charged, my only feeble excuse is that I was trying to comment on what Prynne has to say about the poem rather than the poem itself.
    I have now re-read it and will (obviously) have to reconsider my view.

  3. I don’t get it. Are you(Kevin) trying to say that wordsworth was actually referring to executions in this poem????

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