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 thrilling 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 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.
The poet views a young woman working in a field. He is of sufficient distance that, although he hears her song and its tune, he cannot discern the words. That aspect makes the song all the more memorable and haunting.
The same thing happened to me at a beach campfire around 1969 or so, when a young man [well, seven years older than I at the time] with a guitar sang a pleasant song the words of which I couldn't hear because of the sound of the waves. That, and the fact that since I was only 12, I wasn't permitted into the inner circle of the fireside surfing community.
The thing is, I remembered that song's tune for many years. Then, when in Canada about sixteen years later, eating steak and kidney pie off of Yonge Street in Toronto, at an open mike night another young fellow [probably seven years younger than I was at the time] with a guitar sang the same song and I finally learned what it was.
Of course, the song of my memory was much better than the actual song.
[For those curious, it was Gordon Lightfoot's "Affair on 8th Avenue".]