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Analysis of Poem 'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Alfred Noyes (1880 - 1958)

Alfred Noyes (1880 - 1958)

Alfred Noyes and a Summary of 'The Highwayman'

'The Highwayman' is a lyrical ballad of 17 stanzas with a rhyming narrative, swift-moving rhythms and full romantic imagery. Despite the traditional Edwardian style, it's a popular poem still, loved by children and adults alike.

The setting is 18th century England in the time of King George III. Many roads are still primitive and unpoliced, hence the rise of the notorious highwayman, an outlaw on horseback who stops people on the road, often brandishing a pistol or sword, demanding cash and personal treasures.

This poem portrays one such highwayman in a romantic light—he rode with a 'jewelled twinkle' for example, and wore a 'French cocked-hat' (not an English hat), which suggests that he had a flair for the provocative, a certain je ne sais quoi.

His relationship with Bess, a landlord's black-eyed daughter, is one of pure romanticism. He is the gentleman robber (a la Robin Hood), a hero of the people, a criminal yet somehow loved because he flouts authority and lives on his wits and bravado.

Bess and he are lovers, this is clear from the language and suggestive tone. Yet someone else loves Bess—Tim—the ostler (archaic name for stable-hand), who, in contrast to the lovers who are seen as passionate, beautiful innocents, is pale and unhealthy, even a little mad. He represents society at large.

Strangely, or logically, Tim is only mentioned once, in the fourth stanza, but his role appears to be pivotal. Although it's unclear as to whether he actually betrays the ill-fated lovers or not, he does overhear them in the dark, so the reader is led to believe that he is the one who gives away their secret.

The themes of the poem are:

  • love and betrayal, sacrifice and innocence.
  • morality and duty.

The poet uses strong imagery, much repetition, rhythm and full rhyme to reinforce the storyline. The lines in each stanza are either hexameter (6/7 stresses) or trimeter/tetrameter (2/3/4 stresses), long then short.

Alfred Noyes, teacher, novelist and poet, was a strong believer in maintaining tradition in his poetry. Not for him the free verse of the modernists, which he hated, he much preferred keeping rhyme and rhythm and simplicity to the fore.

Many dismiss his work as retrograde and sentimental but others argue there will always be a place for rhyming lyric and rhythmic ballad in poetry, especially since children seem to be attracted to a suspenseful story set to familiar beat and simple syllabic pattern.

Influenced by giants of the iamb and anapaest Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe, Noyes first published 'The Highwayman' in Blackwood's Magazine, August 1906, and later it appeared in his book Forty Singing Seamen, 1907.

'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes

PART ONE

I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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.

IV.
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-

V.
"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."

VI.
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.

PART TWO

I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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!

IV.
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!

V.
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.

VI.
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.

VII.
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.

VIII.
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.

IX.
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 a bunch of lace at his throat.

. . .
X.
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.

XI.
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.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'The Highwayman'

'The Highwayman' is strong on imagery, rhythm and repetition. Each stanza is like a cinematic picture-card, the story building and unfolding as the poem progresses. There are two main characters, the highwayman (who remains unnamed) and Bess, the landlord's daughter.

We also get to hear of Tim, the jealous informant, who tells the authorities about the arranged meeting of the lovers. The tragic end and ghostly appearance of the two lovers is a popular ploy.

Part One

First Stanza

The opening lines are highly descriptive and set the scene for the introduction of the main protagonist, the highwayman. It is night-time, in the trees the wind was a torrent of darkness, the moon a ghostly galleon tossed and the road a ribbon of moonlight—this is a powerful introduction to a dramatic, gothic backdrop.

This is also a metaphorical threesome which conjures up both voyage and romance—sea, ship and mystery.

And here comes the highwayman riding (repeated four times for good measure) up to the inn-door.

Second Stanza

This stanza describes the appearance of the highwayman. He is seen as stylish, suave, wears a French hat which is both daring and different and seems to sparkle as he rides. Note the use of the word jewel, which represents wealth and status, and twinkle, related to cheekiness (twinkle in the eye).

Again, repetition, this time highlighting his weaponry (manhood).

Third Stanza

The highwayman rides over the cobbles to the inn-door and raps, but the place is locked. Was he expecting a welcome from the landlord? No, he's just brazen because he's a rebel and a man who knows what he wants.

His whip doesn't work so he whistles to see if his lover will respond. Sure enough Bess is at the window, tying a knot into her hair. But it's no ordinary knot, it's a love-knot—a symbol employed in various old British folk-songs, such as Barbara Allen, Lord Thomas and Fair Annet, Lord Lovel, and Fair Margaret and Sweet William.

Love-knots have long been a symbol of fidelity, associated with the present and certainly with the pagan past.

Fourth Stanza

Bess has another admirer in her life—Tim, the worker who looks after the horses and stables. He is in love with her. Tim is portrayed as a pale (peaked means sickly looking) slightly mad fellow with mould in his hair.

As the stable-wicket creaked (a wicket is a door or gate) he is there in the dark listening as the highwayman arrives to get in touch with Bess.

Tim is the anti-hero—his appearance leaves much to be desired when compared to the highwayman. Poor guy, he seems to be a bit helpless, in love with the red-lipped daughter, yet having to deal with guest's horses and the stinky stables.

Fifth Stanza

The highwayman seeks a kiss from Bess, just the one, because he has business to attend to out on the road, robbing people. He wants to be back before the morning light, that is, he'd prefer to meet up with her before dawn—if he's not hassled by the authorities.

So it seems the highwayman is suggesting that he may run into bother, in which case if he does, he'll be back by moonlight the following day. She's to look out for his return.

Tim hears all this.He must be both heart-broken and furiously jealous.

Sixth Stanza

The highway man seeks his kiss but can't reach up. Bess looses her hair from the casement (casement window, hinged) and it tumbles down as far as his chest. He can smell her perfume. It heats him up—a brand is a burning symbol marked onto livestock.

This is quite a sensual scene. He kisses her hair (which is in waves) then gallops off into the night.

Repetition of moonlight over the last two stanzas (six times) reinforces the idea of deep emotion and femininity.

Part Two

First Stanza

The highwayman doesn't show in the morning, he's not there by noon. But before sunset we are told that a red-coat troop are on the move, marching across the purple moor to the inn. These are the king's men, George III's soldiers.

This doesn't bode well for the lovers. Red is the symbol of blood.

Second Stanza

These soldiers are a law unto themselves. They drink the landlord's ale without asking for permission. They tie Bess to her narrow bed and gag her (put something in her mouth to prevent her from speaking and crying out).

Two red-coats, with muskets (rifles) keep watch. Bess can see out of the casement the road the highwayman will travel. This is a serious turn of events. Bess now faces a life or death situation.

Third Stanza

Bess is in an impossible position. These soldiers are laughing, they are cruel - being merry on alcohol they probably don't realise the terror involved? They have tied a musket to her breast, a horrible thing to do, which suggests that they intend her death, one way or the other.

They also kiss her, which seems odd and abusive. Does this suggest a sexual motive? There is no mention of a commanding officer being present to instil discipline. The soldiers must know that when her lover returns she will be able to see him approaching along the road.

Fourth Stanza

Bess attempts to loosen the bonds that held her hands but the knots are tightly tied. Yet still she persists, right to midnight, and at last manages to free one finger and touch the trigger of the musket.

Fifth Stanza

With one finger free and on the trigger she stands up. She doesn't have to struggle with the knots any longer; she stays quiet so the soldiers can't hear. But inside she longs for her lover to return.

Sixth Stanza

Then finally she hears the sound of hooves on the road and wonders why the soldiers don't respond to this. Eventually they hear and begin to prime (make ready for firing) their weapons.

The tension mounts.

Seventh Stanza

It's a cold frosty night. The highwayman is nearing and she is about to warn him of the danger—she will shoot herself, he will hear the musket sound and know that he must back off.

The ultimate sacrifice has been made. She kills herself for love. Rather than see her lover captured and killed, she shot herself so that he might escape.

Eighth Stanza

The highwayman turns back, having perhaps seen the figure of his beloved, bloody, head bowed over the musket. Only at dawn does he hear of her death, of how she waited for his return and shot herself so that he might live on.

Ninth Stanza

The news of Bess's death spurs him on—back—and he rides with his rapier (sword) held high, screaming in anguish. This is his last act, riding into glory and a certain death at the hands of the soldiers.

Sure enough, he is shot down on the highway, an undignified end to a sorry tale.

Tenth Stanza

Yet, the highwayman rides again—in the folklore. His ghost returns on wintry nights, bound for the same inn-door.

Eleventh Stanza

He taps, then whistles for his beloved Bess. She also returns in ghostly form, responding to her love, plaiting a love-knot in her dark hair.

Even death cannot end this fabulous love affair.

What Is the Metre in 'The Highwayman'?

The Highwayman has iambic/anapaestic hexameter (sometimes called the alexandrine, with 6/7 stresses) in the long lines of each stanza, and the shorter lines are mostly iambic/trochaic trimeter/tetrameter (2/3/4 stresses).

There are some lines that differ slightly, but the basic scan holds true. Let's take a closer look at the first stanza:

  • The wind / was a torr / ent of dark / ness among / the gust / y trees.

This is a classic mix of iamb (daDUM) and anapaest (dadaDUM) which combine to produce a rising familiar rhythm, with the stress coming on the second and third syllables respectively.

  • The moon / was a ghost / ly gall / eon tossed / upon / cloudy seas.

This second line, again of fifteen syllables, is basically similar to the first, the mid-section slightly less flowing because of an iamb replacing an anapaest. The fifth and sixth feet could be scanned as anapaest and iamb (with the second syllable of upon being only slightly stressed) but the above is also acceptable.

  • The road / was a ribb / on of moon / light o / ver the purp / le moor,

The third line varies slightly again, yet uses the now established iamb and anapaest, with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th foot changing.

  • And the high / wayman / came riding -

The fourth shorter line is a trimeter, 8 syllables, with an anapaest leading foot. The second foot is a quieter pyrrhic (no stresses), whilst the third is an amphibrach, with the stress on the middle syllable.

  • Riding /- riding -

The shortest line has two trochees (DUMda), falling feet.

  • The high / wayman / came ri / ding, up / to the old / inn-door.

The sixth line is a hexameter, with three iambs and an anapaest. A pyrrhic and, at the end, a spondee (DUMDA) are present.

This first stanza sets the pattern for the rest of the poem, metrically speaking, although individual lines here and there may differ.

Familiar and common in Victorian and early Edwardian poetry, iambic and anapaestic rhythms rule The Highwayman, creating flow and regular, almost military beat. Some experienced readers enjoy the ride, some may think it monotonous.

What Is the Rhyme Scheme?

'The Highwayman' has a rhyme scheme of:

aabccb

with the opening couplet fully rhymed, the fourth and fifth lines sandwiched between the third and last. All of the rhymes are full except the slant rhymes in stanzas 4 (Part Two) years/hers and 8, hear/there.

Literary/Poetic Devices in 'The Highwayman'

Alliteration

When two or more words beginning with consonants are close together in a line, altering texture of sound. For example:

Stanza 6 (II) : Had they heard it? The horsehoofs

Assonance

When two or more words have similar sounding vowels close together in a line. For example:

Stanza 5 (II) :She strove no more for the rest

Caesura

Pauses in a line, where the reader stops momentarily, usually through punctuation. For example:

Stanza 3 (I) :They had tied up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.

Metaphor

When one thing becomes something else, enhancing the whole. For example:

Stanza 1 (I) : The road was a ribbon of moonlight

Repetition

A word or phrase repeated, reinforcing meaning. For example:

A highwayman comes riding -

Riding - riding

Simile

When one thing is compared to another, often using the words as or like. For example:

and the hours crawled by like years

Sources

  • Given, Philip Lombard. “The Poetry of Alfred Noyes.” The North American Review, vol. 200, no. 704, 1914, pp. 85–96. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25120305. Accessed 30 July 2021.
  • Poetry Foundation
  • Alfred Noyes Papers: An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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