“Highland Reaper”


Albert Edward Day
The Abingdon Press
Copyright, 1938

Chapter IV, The Experience of Jesus, page 113. 114.

How the reality of a poem takes hold of us, does business with us .

We read it once, enjoy its rhythm. its imagery, its suggestion.

But we contemplate it, and by and by it ceases to be rhythm and imagery and becomes a message and a revelation.

It effects a change in us which thereafter is latent in all that we do.

As a simple illustration take the lines from Wordsworth’s “Highland Reaper.”

He sees her reaping in the field and hears her signing.

“Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
From old far-off unhappy things
And battles long ago.

Or is it some more humble lay
Familiar matter of the day,
Some natural sorrow, loss or gain
That has been and may be again?

Whate’er it be 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.

To the casual reader, that is a simple description of a peasant girl at work in the field, singing at her work, plus some romanticism on the part of the poet who found in her merely the occasion for some flights of fancy in keeping with his own eternal homesickness.

But if one meditates long enough, he finds something happening to himself.

He is having an experience of the infinite pathos of life and its infinite beauty.

He is seeing that even a Highland reaper is more than a Highland reaper.

She is one with all humanity that has gone down into the dust.

In herself, she echoes the frustrate hopes, the disappointed loves of the past and yet can make a song of them, and find in the song redemption from drudgery and rise triumphant over the foes of hope and love. By the sheer magic of her spirit she blends the tragedy of the past and the drudgery of the present and the uncertainty of the future into a scene of haunting beauty. All of that and more is in the poem.

If given a chance, it reaches out and takes hold of the heart and sends one on his way with a new conviction that though he can not escape tears and toil it is all worth while and may be made a poem, not on the page only, but in life.

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