The Highwayman

Posted: January 4, 2014 in Memories, Personal, Poetry
Tags: , , , , , ,

What makes one poem appeal to us and be remembered forever, when all sort of important and useful facts slip away like water through a sieve?  My mother read to us when we were growing up–stories, poems, from the Bible.  We had  a set of World Book Encyclopedias and, even more fun for us as children, a set of orange Childcraft books, put out by World Book.  The volumes that held poetry were especially cherished and the poems read and re-read.  I still have them today.

Last year, I shared one of my best-loved poems from those volumes, “A Ballad of China.”  Here’s another of my favorites, Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.”  If you can, read it aloud as poetry is meant to be read.  Truth be told, I still  get goose-bumps from this one.

by Alfred Noyes

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 inn-door.

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

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard, 
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 he 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 the 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 in 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.

He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of 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 of 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 doomed 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!

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 the rest. 
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle 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? The 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 landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shouting a curse to the sky, 
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway, 
   Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the 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 cloudy 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 black-eyed daughter, 
   Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
Comments
  1. yes, there’s something very special = maybe the syntax? = of that poem. thanks for the refresher! z

  2. Vaguely I remember this story. I enjoyed this morning.

  3. Oh this is painting with words… New to me.. but I never grew up with poetry in English…

  4. I used to read this poem aloud with sixth graders and help them see the pictures it creates- and have them take turns reading it aloud. What fun 😉 WG

    • Reading poetry aloud is the way to go. When we studied Shakespeare in our home schooling, we read it aloud. Makes so much more sense that way and sounds so much better.

      janet

      • Makes more sense, and is so much more fun. I had a great time with “Jabberwocky” with my honors group! Good for you for homeschooling! Best wishes, WG

      • “Jabberwocky” is so much fun. As for home schooling, we home schooled through high school and most of the time it was great.

      • A good friend has done that with her 3. Her daughter was accepted “early decision” at W&M. Kids get what they need most times, without all of the difficulties of public school. Best wishes- WG

  5. This has been beautifully set to music and sung by Loreena McKennitt http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvKBPr71dhA

  6. This is always a favorite. The rhythm just like the horse’s hooves. the repetition, the pacing – and such a universal feeling/situation. Haunting for sure

  7. belocchio says:

    When I was rather young my Mother would read this poem to me. She loved it and read it much vigor and not a few dramatics. I was thrilled to tiny pieces no matter how many times I listened to the words. Virginia

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