The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

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“The Highwaymen” is a romantic tale of how two lovers cannot be separated even by the impediments of death. Set during the time of King George, the poem seeks to explore the world of love wherein also resides such themes as hope and jealousy and how their deadly combinations may lead to unforeseen tragedies.

The Highwayman

BY ALFRED NOYES

PART ONE

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding–
Riding–riding–
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inndoor.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of claret velvet, and breeches of brown doeskin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dard inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like moldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and heard the robber say–

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize tonight,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i’ the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(Oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

PART TWO

He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o’ the tawny sunset, before the rise o’ the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red coat troop came marching–
marching–marching–
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two fo them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
“Now keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the dead man say–
Look for me by moonlight;
Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

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She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for rest!
Up, she stood to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love’s refrain

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? This horse-hoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him; with her death.

He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew gray to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlords black-eyed daughter,
Had watched her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shreiking a curse to the sky,
with the white road smoking behind him, and his rapier brain dished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat.
When they shot him down in the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cluody seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding–
Riding–riding–
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Analysis of Noyes’ “The Highwayman”

In ‘The Highwayman’, Alfred Noyes uses a strong narrative plot to tell his story, along with the proponents of vivid imagery and captivating rhythm in his words. Throughout the poem, there is an element of death foreshadowing the couple’s love. The highwayman, who passes by the inn to meet his lover, Bess, promises to come back to her the very next night. I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way! His insistence on not even letting the possibility of death be a barrier between them may act as a sign of inauspiciousness in the air. An admirer of Bess overhears the couple’s plans and lets know the British soldiers so they may seize this opportunity to catch the robber.

The soldiers arrive and decide to use Bess as bait to lay the trap for the highwayman by tying her up and keeping her still with a gun. When the sound of her doomed lover’s horse reaches her ears, Bess shoots herself to caution him of the danger that lies ahead. Unaware that it is Bess who has been shot, the highwayman flees only to return the next morning to take revenge into his own hands. Back he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky. Unsuccessful, he dies for his love as had Bess, who had sacrificed her life for love as well.

Alfred Noyes uses the concepts of love and death in a manner of juxtaposition to allow his readers to observe the similarity of haunting-ness in them. At the end, it is proven that love is more powerful than death as the highwaymen and his lover are reunited in death as their ghosts meet every night where he had made the promise to do so.

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