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The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

I’m a sucker for Celtic legends, ghost stories, myths and music, of any kind.  Set it in Scotland or Ireland, and I’m happy to the bone.  Old England?  Love it.  Wales? Yorkshire? The moors?  Happy sighs from me, all around.  I thought today might be a fun time to share a poem I have always loved, and also the link to Loreena McKennitt’s wonderful, slightly shortened, musical adaptation of it.  If you’ve never read The Highwayman, trust me, the Romantic in your soul will be stirred.  And if you’ve never listened to this song, please do.  There is a long, lovely musical introduction, before McKennitt’s hauntingly beautiful voice tells the tale of love’s ultimate sacrifice.  The imagery is gorgeous, and I never hear the song without getting cold chills and tears in my eyes.  Hope it affects some of you the same way!  To get the best of both worlds, read the lyrics along with the song. Enjoy!

“The Highwayman”

by

Alfred Noyes

First Published in 1906

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 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 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 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—

 

“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.”

 

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

 

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 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!

 

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 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.

 

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 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.

 

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.

 

.       .       .

 

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.

 
 

(Click on the link at the top of the page to hear the song)
Loreena McKennitt’s “The Highwayman”

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6 thoughts on “The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

  1. LOVED THIS!!!
    xx
    Sooz

    Like

  2. Thank you, Sooz. I find it unbelievably, wildly romantic, and the song is just gorgeous! I apologize for any spacing problems with the poem. No matter how many times I get the stanzas separated by double spacing, after an hour or two, it reverts back to single spacing. I don’t get it!! Gremlins at work with the html, I guess. I’ve straightened it all back again. Fingers crossed that it holds, so that it is easier to read.

    Like

  3. Rebecca Selover on said:

    Hi Marcia, I loved reading the poem again!!!!! Rebecca

    On Tuesday, October 23, 2012, Bookin’ It wrote: > Marcia posted: “I’m a sucker for Celtic legends, ghost stories, myths and music, of any kind. Set it in Scotland or Ireland, and I’m happy to the bone. Old England? Love it. Wales? Yorkshire? The moors? Happy sighs from me, all around. I thought today might b” >

    Like

  4. Enjoyed the whole version…as I read it, I did so with the excitement of Anne (Megan Follows) in the Anne of Green Gable trilogy. 😀 Patty

    Like

  5. Oooh, that’s nice! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I hope you listened to the song, too? The link is at the bottom, and it is so gorgeous, it enhances the poem beautifully. Even if it does leave out the verse where the ostler overhears the Highwayman’s pledge to come back that night (and thus, explained how the British knew to wait for him at the inn).

    You really MUST listen to the music! It’s DIVINE!!!

    Like

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