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In August 1906, Blackwood’s Magazine originally published “The Highwayman.” The next year, it appeared in Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems. Since its publication, the public has consistently found it to be popular. The poem was written while Noyes was 24 years old, yet it is set in the 18th century in England. He was residing at a cottage in Bagshot Health at the time. The opening scene of “The Highwayman” paints a striking and intriguing picture of a stormy, gloomy night. The first sentences immediately create a tense atmosphere and define the backdrop, which is crucial to how the story develops.
About the poet
British poet and novelist Alfred Noyes is well-recognised for his lyric and narrative poetry. He produced a number of noteworthy books, including “The Highwayman” and “The Barrel-Organ,” which explore themes of romance, exploration, and the human condition. In addition, he had a successful career as a speaker and writer who published work in a number of literary and cultural journals. He died in 1958 and left a significant literary impact.
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.
The wind, moon, and road are introduced in “The Highwayman”‘s opening line. Noyes describes what each of them is like using metaphors. The road is a “ribbon of moonlight”, the moon is a “ghostly galleon” and the wind is a “torrent of darkness”. The highwayman, who is approaching the “inn” on his horse and galloping all the way up, is the poem’s major character. He rides up to the “inn” while Noyes uses repetition to emphasize the movement of the man and his horse.
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 jewelled twinkle, His pistol butts a-twinkle, His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
The description of the highwayman starts in the second verse. He had “a bunch of lace at his chin” and a “French cocked-hat on his forehead”. These expressions allude to his ostentatious attire and the lace that protrudes from the top of his shirt. He has a “jewelled twinkle” about him, and his trousers have never been or could ever be wrinkled. He radiates significance. In the last three lines, the term “twinkle” is used three times to describe his pistols, rapier, and overall appearance.
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.
In order to replicate the sound of the highwayman moving over the cobblestones, Noyes uses alliteration in the opening line of the third stanza. He knocks on the shutters but gets no response. There are “locked and barred” everywhere. Instead, he makes the decision to whistle, and fortunately for him, the “landlord’s black-eyed daughter, / Bess” appears. She walks outside while braiding her hair to see him. She has a “dark red love-knot” in her hair as a representation of her affection and bond with the man.
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 mouldy 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—
Tim the Ostler, the poem’s third character, is introduced in the fourth verse. He is the one in charge of the horses, and he is watching this match. His “hair like mouldy hay” and “white face” give him a crazy or demented appearance. This is only one illustration of the potent imagery that Noyes employs in this poem. Like the highwayman, he has feelings for the landlord’s daughter. He listened in on their conversation, eavesdropping. There is a stark contrast between the attractive daughter, the flashy and confident highwayman, and Tim.
“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night, 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.”
The highwayman’s statements appear in the second-to-last verse of this section of the poem. He will “go tonight after a prize.” This indicates that he has some robbery planned for that evening and that he’ll return with the dawn. The poet certainly romanticizes his activities and existence.
The highwayman is aware that the law may “press” and “follow” him “through the day” and “through the night,” and he warns Bess of this. If this is the case, he will postpone his visit to her until after dark. However, he is adamant about getting there even if “hell should bar the way.” Whatever happens, he’ll return.
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, (O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!) Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.
His activities are once more described in the sixth stanza. He reaches up to her, but he can hardly touch her. Despite being geographically apart, the two are brought together by their shared love. He flushes as he smells her, and she lets her hair down. In the dead of night, he kisses her hair. In this verse, the word “moonlight” appears three times, emphasizing both light and gloom. It facilitates the development of a particular environment for these events. In order to complete his mission, he rides off “to the west” in the last queue. He moves “west,” which is a poor metaphor for someone who wants to turn around. Because it is the direction in which the sun sets, the “west” is frequently used to symbolize death and the hereafter.
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.
The second part of ‘The Highwayman’ opens with the sentence “He did not come in the dawning.” He wasn’t where he was supposed to be when the sun dawned. He wasn’t there either at midday or when the sun was sinking. This is hardly encouraging, especially in light of the tenacity he displayed in the earlier stanzas. Instead of the highwayman approaching, the speaker sees “a red-coat troop marching” instead. They appear to be a crimson “gypsy’s ribbon” spreading across the moor. The “King George’s men” approach the “old inn-door” directly.
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.
The men sip the landlord’s ale but do not converse with him as they should. His daughter was “bound” to the little bed and “gagged.” These are the story’s antagonists, guys who will undoubtedly put a crimp in the blissful connection that was shown in the preceding stanzas. While waiting for the highwayman to come back, the guys are preparing an ambush. Because “hell is at every window,” the highwayman is vulnerable to being shot and murdered from any window. Horribly, Bess can see from a window the precise location where her boyfriend would arrive back.
They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest. They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle 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!
As they work, the men “snigger” and make jokes. They cruelly humiliate the young woman while feeling good about themselves. Bess is thinking about her “doomed man,” who she remembers telling her to “Watch for me by moonlight.” She is aware that he may show up at any time.
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 narrator depicts Bess’s attempts to twist her hands free of the ropes in the fourth stanza. She tries to escape and eventually succeeds. She makes the decision to grab a gun rather than leave the room. The final phrase proclaims that “at least the trigger 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.
Bess stands up with the rifle placed on her breast. She makes as little noise as she can, hoping that men won’t hear her. She “would not strive again,” the third line states.
In this stanza, Noyes uses the term “moonlight” three more times. The recurrence of words starting with “b” is another effective example of alliteration. The last few lines emphasize Bess’s heartbeat and the flow of blood through her veins.
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs 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.
The sound of “horsehoofs ringing clear” appears in the sixth verse. Just as Bess and the troops had expected, they are approaching along the trail from a distance. However, it doesn’t seem like the soldiers are aware of what the noise is. Just like he did in the opening stanzas, the highwayman is riding along the road once more. The term “riding” is once more emphasized. The redcoats now understood what was going on. Bess is prepared to carry out her strategy.
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.
As the poem approaches its conclusion, the tension is increasing in these lines. What Bess is attempting to do is yet unknown. That is made evident in the final lines of this poem. To “warn…him—with her death,” she chooses to shoot herself in the breast. This is the behavior of someone who is in extreme need.
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 blood! Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey 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.
He flees back to the west, where he originally came, at the sound of the gunshot. He is unaware of what it was, but the narrator is aware of it, and the sight is horrifying. He learned what had transpired the following day. His “face grew grey to hear” that his girlfriend had passed away.
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking 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 a bunch of lace at his throat.
The next day, after learning what happened to Bess, the highwayman returns to the inn. He feels as though he needs to get retribution since he is so furiously enraged. He rides while berating the skies. The highwayman is also prepared with his sword to execute the red coats who were responsible for her demise. As one might anticipate, the troops at the inn murder the highwayman. He “Down like a dog on the highway”. At his throat, the white lace becomes crimson.
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.
The poem’s final two stanzas are italicized to indicate that they follow the major incidents described in parts I and II. These lines explain how the two lovers’ spirits continue to appear in the inn long after the events of the poem. when the atmosphere is favorable, as it was at the poem’s opening, and the “wind is in the trees.” The highwayman reappears exactly as before.
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.
He makes an attempt to enter the inn, much like when the two were both alive in the past. These sentences practically verbatim repeat the first few lines of the poem. Despite the fact that they are both now deceased, Bess is still present. At the poem’s conclusion, this is a reassuring and comforting vision.