‘The Highwayman’ is an exhilarating and dramatic poem involving love and betrayal. It is a narrative poem that was written by Alfred Noyes, an English poet at the age of twenty-four (Noyes, 1953). It was first published in the August 1906 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine, and it went on to be included in Noyes’ collection, Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems. The Highwayman is classified as a narrative poem because it is read by the reader instead of one of the characters, a feature that gives the characters an even spread throughout the poem.
The poem tells the story of a highwayman, a term referring to a thief who traveled on a horse and preyed on travelers. Such robbers existed from the Elizabethan era, a time associated with Queen Elizabeth that saw the flowering of English poetry, music, and literature. These robbers generally operated in Great Britain and Ireland and were admired by many for their boldness and courage to fight for what they wanted. Highwaymen were often well dressed and even had nice manners and robbed the rich to help the poor, a reason which contributed to their admiration by the underprivileged at that time.
‘The Highwayman’ is set in England and tells a tale of a man who robs travelers of their most valued possessions. The highwayman in this poem meets and falls in love with a girl named Bess, the landlord’s daughter whom he secretly meets with every night. However, Tim, the stableman who also loves Bess and is uncontrollably jealous betrays the highwayman by informing him to the authorities. The poem starts out with the highwayman visiting Bess at her father’s inn. Being on the move, he asks and only has time for one kiss but promises he’ll be back by dawn. He, however, does not return and the next evening, some British soldiers (the Redcoats) show up and taunt Bess by tying her to the bedpost in the room they expect him (the highwayman) to come, with a gun at her chest. The soldiers then wait by the window, but Bess wriggles around till she has her finger on the trigger.
Upon hearing the highwayman’s horse coming, Bess decided to sacrifice her own life in order to warn the highwayman of the ambush by pulling the trigger. Not knowing what had happened, the highwayman flees until the next day. Upon hearing of his lover’s death, with rage in his heart, he turns towards the soldiers and rides towards them with obvious suicidal revenge. He tries to get away but is not successful as he is shot down by the soldiers in the middle of the road and dies in a pool of blood. The poem ends with the idea that, on certain winter nights, the highwayman’s ghost rides down the highway to meet his lover, Bess.
The main characters, Bess and the Highwayman face numerous problems as lovers. The major problem is that the highwayman is a robber, and Bess, his lover is the Landlord’s daughter. Though they can’t actually solve these problems, they continue seeing each other. Another problem is that there is another man, Tim the Ostler, who is also in love with Bess. This, they don’t find out until towards the end of the poem, when it’s too late, and they both die.
The variety of imagery used in this poem creates the atmosphere and gives the reader a clear picture of what the characters look like. The poet sets off the poem with the heavy use of metaphors which create a spooky atmosphere. A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses a word or phrase that employs an implicit comparison between two, unlike things in order to create a resemblance. This can be seen in the first stanza, ‘The wind was a torrent of darkness . . . / the moon was a ghostly galleon . . . /the road was a ribbon of moonlight. The use of these figures of speech creates a dramatic start and makes the reader create a spooky ambiance inside his/her head. These metaphors are again repeated towards the ending of the poem, reinforcing the images in the reader’s mind.
Repetition is used all the way through the poem to create emphasis, bringing the words to life and making the poem more interesting. A good example of its use can be seen in the first stanza ‘. . . the highwayman came riding- riding- riding-‘and in the second part of the poem, ‘A red-coat troop came marching- marching- marching’. The repetition of these words creates pressure, adding a tone of urgency to the poem.
Onomatopoeia, the use of words to imitate the sounds they denote, is used in order to make the poem more lively and interesting. Towards the end of the poem, the poet uses this rhetoric tool to describe the sound of the nearing footsteps of the highwayman’s horse i.e. ‘Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? . . . Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance?’ The poet repeats this stylistic device again in the following stanza in order to create drama and increase the tension of in the poem.
The poet also uses similes, the comparison between one object with another of a different kind, to help paint a better picture to the reader about the characters. An example of this is where the poet writes ‘His hair like mouldy hay’. This simile is used to describe Tim the ostler and creates the impression that his hair was old and unkempt. Personification, a figure of speech that involves endowing non-living objects with human qualities, is used in the second part of the poem where the poet writes, ‘There was death at every window’. This creates the impression that there was a looming danger.
The poet employs a rhyme scheme throughout all the stanzas in the poem in order to create a relentless pace. For example in the first stanza, ‘. . . he did not come at noon . . . before the rise o’ the moon . . . looping the purple moor . . . up to the old in-door’. In the first line, the poet uses alliteration, the repetition of words or letters i.e.’ . . . among the gusty trees . . . a ghostly galleon . . .’ the alliteration of the ‘g’ sounds lends the tone a bizarre and gritty emotion.
The poet heavily employs the use of imagery to capture the reader’s attention. There are strong contrasts between the two lovers and the envious Tim the ostler where the two are associated with life while the corpse-like Tim is associated with death. This can be seen where Bess’s eyes are described as being black whereas Tim’s are “hollows of madness”; Bess is “re-lipped”, whereas Tim’s face which is white. Another contrast can be seen where the highwayman’s face is described as being burnt like a brand, unlike Tim’s cheeks which are peaked. Though ‘The highwayman’s’ name is not mentioned in the poem, it is evident that he is wealthy as the poet describes how well he is dressed. The poet writes in the second stanza, ‘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 doe-skin’ (James).
There are four main themes expressed in the poem. These are the themes of love, betrayal, loyalty, and death. The theme of love is first expressed where the poet describes the love between the two lovers which is evident when the highwayman leaves Bess but promises to come back. The poet writes, ‘I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way’. This particular line depicts the great force of love and the way in which the highwayman is subject to the passions within his heart.
The greatest expression of the theme of love in this poem is revealed where Bess sacrifices her own life just to warn him of the looming danger ahead. Though the highwayman finally dies, this act proved the extent of the love that Bess, the landlord’s daughter, had for the highwayman. This theme is also expressed where the poet writes ‘But he (Tim) loved the landlord’s daughter’. It is this love that makes Tim envious of the love between the highwayman and Bess, the reason why he informs on him to the authorities.
Another theme is that of betrayal. Though the poet does not directly point out that Tim informed on the highwayman, he alludes to it where he writes ’Dumb as a dog, he listened, and he heard the robber say-‘. It is after this that the redcoat army storm into the inn, in an attempt to capture the highwayman. Loyalty, on the other hand, is revealed where the highwayman, upon hearing about the death of Bess, he becomes outraged and risks his own life by facing the Redcoats just to avenge the death of his lover. The poet writes ‘Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky, with the white road smoking behind him . . .’ Unfortunately, he does not succeed but ends up being shot dead as well (Noyes).
The theme of death is revealed towards the end of the poem where Bess decides to sacrifice her own life in an order to warn the highwayman of the looming danger. In the eighth stanza of the second part of the poem, the poet writes ‘. . . drenched with her own red blood . . . the landlord’s black-eyed daughter . . . and died in the darkness there’. This theme is also revealed when the highwayman, in an attempt to avenge his lovers death, ends up being shot, dying in a pool of blood by the highway.
There are several other themes that emerge within the poem. Jealousy is one of these which is the major reason as to why Tim the Ostler spies and informs the highwayman. The theme of courage is expressed where the highwayman risks his life to avenge on the death of Bess. Towards the end, the poet writes ‘With the white rod smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!’ This statement, among others, implies that the highwayman was a brave man.
The soldiers in the redcoat army also play a key role in this poem. They can be described as a proud and callous lot. The poet writes ‘They said no words to the landlord, they drank his ale instead’. These particular lines also reveal how the soldiers abuse the power winch they possess. The way in which they gag up Bess and strap her to her bed with a gun on her chest implies that they are a cold and ruthless group (elite skills).
‘The Highwayman’ will remain to be one of the most extraordinary works of Alfred Noyes. This poem engulfs lots of artistic skills like similes, metaphors, personification and onomatopoeia creating many emotions and bringing out clearly different themes. This poem is reputed to be ‘’ the best narrative poem in existence for oral delivery’’.