The two men in Wordsworth's "The Discharged Soldier" represent two very distinct kinds of solitude. The narrator is walking alone enjoying the night. Suddenly, he comes across another man who is alone, but not in the same way that he is. Both the narrator and the stranger lack attendants, dogs and staffs, but the stranger is still more isolated. The stranger is not simply alone but desolate. After observing the ghastly form of the stranger for some time, the narrator approaches. From their conversation we learn that the unknown man is a discharged soldier attempting to make his way home. The narrator sympathizes and takes him to a friend's house nearby where the soldier will be able to spend the night. The dramatic situation is simple enough, but in it there is a much broader meaning.
The difference between the solitude of the narrator and the desolation of the soldier must be understood in order to comprehend the deeper meaning of the poem. The narrator chooses to be alone and appreciates all the subtleties of his surroundings causing "A restoration like the calm of sleep / But sweeter far". (ll. 23-24) The narrator equates solitude with piece, but as soon as he encounters the soldier he recognizes the different character of the soldier's aloneness. The soldier appears so isolated he is hardly "akin to man". (l. 67) The choice to be alone is what sets the narrator apart from the soldier, upon whom solitude was forced.
The narrator describes the soldier as looking "Forlorn and desolate, a man cut off / From all his kind, and more than half detached / From his own nature". (ll. 58-60) The soldier is entirely out of his element and seems unable to function. The way he has lived in the army is not acceptable in civil society so he must make an attempt to pick up his life where he left off years ago. The society he enters, however, is as changed as he is and is not at all what he remembers leaving behind. The soldier is overwhelmed by confusion and stops at a random point in the road because he cannot comprehend venturing further into a society he no longer understands, full of men not at all like him. His tone is "of one / Remembering the importance of his theme, / But feeling it no longer". (ll. 144-146) This demonstrates how the man sees himself as only a soldier but recognizes that now that part of his life is over. His theme as soldier is no longer valid, therefore, he thinks of himself as insignificant as well.
The dramatic situation created here by Wordsworth is one that applies to many different places during various eras. A soldier is a man taken out of his natural environment and trained to live as a subordinate whose only duty is following orders. When thrown back into the civilian world he is not so much a man as a lonely, "uncouth shape". (l. 47) He was molded to be a soldier and now that he has lost that he has no defined role in society. After service in the armed forces a soldier must forget all his training and learn to be an independent man again. Soldiers who are abruptly discharged from the army are discharged from the only world they have come to know and understand.