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.
So wrote the young Wordsworth about the sight of a Gaelic reaper he saw on a visit to the Scottish Highlands. To us, this seems a perfectly natural choice of subject, but to many poets before him, and indeed to many of his contemporaries, the choice of a peasant girl– a real one, not a figure from Greek mythology – as a source of inspiration would have been quite puzzling. Though as British as Wordsworth, the reaper still has an air of the foreign or exotic about her: although the Scottish Highlands were a day’s boat trip from Wordsworth’s native Cumberland, a wholly different language was (and, in parts, still is) spoken there – and it is the fact that he cannot understand what she is saying that allows him to project his own ideas onto her. Part of the appeal of the scene to Wordsworth was in the girl’s innocence, in her absolute removal from the fast-industrialising parts of the British Isles: there is something that seems timeless about the scene, which would have been much the same even a thousand years earlier. And the reaper is an un-self-conscious part of the landscape as the poet cannot quite be. Wordsworth is describing a real figure in a real landscape in a way that had been fairly uncommon in England, albeit with some degree of idealisation and some sense of distance between poet and subject.
Wordsworth’s poem came to mind recently, when I was reading some poems of a place and era far removed from eighteenth-century Britain: the Korea of the Joseon Dynasty. I believe the poetry of the Far East surpassed European poetry in its appreciation of and evocation of nature, at least until the nineteenth century, and perhaps beyond, but in Japanese and Chinese poetry the farmers and servants of the courtesans and scholars who wrote the poems are largely invisible, less important aesthetically than falling leaves or blossoms. Korean poetry, less courtly, though no less pastoral is more interested in the people in the landscapes it describes. In his book Hanshi Majung, Lee Jong Mok notes a recurring figure in several different poems across different eras: a country girl, maybe a humble kitchen servant, heading home carrying a bamboo basket full of picked vegetables. Often, like Wordsworth’s reaper, she is singing, sometimes she must chase away pesky village youths; one puts a flower in her hair. In all, she seems full of joy – “having gleaned the wealth of the spring,” one poet says, “she returns home merrily.” (p188)
The girl is sometimes the central subject of the poem; at other times she is just one element in a broader pastoral description:
A cock crows mountain noontime
A horse rests inshade of willow branches
The valley echoes with the woodcutter’s song
Downstream, a girl brings in the greens. (190)
In just one poem, she becomes aware of the poet’s attentions, and “seeing me still smiling runs / and hides herself by a magnolia tree.”In that line there is just a hint of an interest in the girl that is not merely aesthetic – it is, to my eye at least, more than a little sensual. In a Freudian reading, attraction to a young girl is, of course, quite natural, but expressing desire for her might not be socially acceptable in Joseon Korea, so the poet sublimates his desire into aesthetic appreciation of her. If that sounds a little reductive, well, we might at least say that some element of desire plays some part in the interest of the poet. And the very same thing could be said, naturally, of William Wordsworth and his Highland lass.
In a less conservative era of English history, and one less interested in realistic pastoral description, poets sang the praises of common women, not as images of authenticity, but as lovers dear and loyal: in an early 16th century ballad, a man and a women debating the fidelity and honesty of women, take the story of a ‘nut-brown maid’ as proof that women, despite that era’s suspicion of them, can indeed be loyal and loving (phew!). The nut-brown maid follows her love, apparently a poorer man, to the green woods, at the risk of her reputation and her comfortable life. She is rewarded when he finally reveals that he is not poor at all,but in fact an earl. The original nut-brown maid is hardly poor, but the name eventually became an epithet applied to poorer women: nut-brown does indeed refer to skin tone, as well as alluding to her connection to nature: women who worked outdoors naturally had darker skin tone than the cloistered daughters of the gentry and the nobility.
16th century courtship could be an exasperating business – if suitors were not great soldiers or men of consequence, they were at least expected to be versed in poetry and music, and of course able to buy the best and most fashionable gifts. One can understand the appeal of a woman lower down the social scale, who may not ask so much of a man.
Thomas Campion, who certainly was versed in poetry and music– and was in fact one of the best poets and best songwriters of the Elizabethan age, though probably not rich, explains the appeal as so:
If I love Amaryllis,
She gives me fruit and flowers:
But if we love these ladies,
We must give golden showers.
Give them gold, that sell love,
Give me the nut-brown lass,
Who, when we court and kiss,
She cries, “Forsooth, let go!”
But when we come where comfort is,
She never will say no.
Amarylis– don’t be fooled by the Greek name, she is an English lass, for sure – puts up a little resistance towards her suitor’s advances, but when –ahem – push comes to shove, she relents. The country girl is a lot less hard work than the noblewoman all hung up on chivalric posing and social advancement – and that, as much as any rustic charms, is the key to her appeal.
The Korean poems are all from Hanshi Majung, Lee Jong Mok, TaeHakSa Press, Seoul 2012. The two short quotes are by Seo Geo Jeong (1420-1488) and Yun Gi (1441-1826), respectively, and the quotations are my own translations of the author Lee Jong Mok’s Korean (Hangul) renditions. The longer extract is by the poet Lee Ha Gon (born 1677), which I translated directly from the Korean Chinese characters (Hanja).
Wordsworth and Campion’s poems are in the public domain.