‘The Highwayman’ was first published in August of 1906 in Blackwood’s Magazine. It was included the following year in Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems. Since its publication, it has been continuously popular with the public.
The poem is set in 18th-century England, but was written when Noyes was twenty-four. He was in Bagshot Health living in a cottage at the time.
In this poem, Noyes explores themes of love, love loss, and death. The action focuses on the lives and deaths of the two main characters, a highwayman, or robber, and his lover, the daughter of the landlord, Bess. These two live for and die for one another. They are reunited in death and continue the habits and practices of their lives.
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Summary of The Highwayman
The poem details the love affair going on between the highwayman and the landlord’s daughter Bess. Their love is pure and strong. He rides into the inn in the middle of the night to tell her that he’s going robbing and will come back the next day no matter what. Unfortunately for both of them, in the meantime soldiers come and set a trap for him.
Bess is able to escape from where they tied her up and in an act of desperation, she kills herself as he rides up the road. The shot warns him that something is wrong and he runs. But, when he finds out what has happened he returns, is shot dead, and then reunited with Bess in the afterlife.
You can read the full poem here at Poetry Foundation.
Structure of The Highwayman
‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes is a three-part poem that is divided into one set of six stanzas, another of nine, and a final concluding two stanza section. The stanzas are all six lines long, known as sestets. The sestets follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABCCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza as the poet saw fit.
The meter is a little more complicated. There are six sets of two beats per line, known as hexameter. But the stress, or emphasis, moves. Sometimes Noyes uses anapaests and sometimes he uses iambs.
Poetic Techniques in The Highwayman
Noyes makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Highwayman’. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration, metaphor, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. This technique appears numerous times throughout the poem. For example, “landlord,” “lipped,” and “love” in the last lines of stanza three of part I.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. Noyes uses three in the first stanza of ‘The Highwayman’. He compares the moon and wind to the sea, and the road to “a ribbon of moonlight”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the fourth stanza of part I.
Analysis of The Highwayman
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.(…)The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
In the first stanza of ‘The Highwayman,’ the speaker begins by describing “The wind,” “The moon,” and “The road”. Noyes uses metaphors to outline what each of these is like. The wind is a “torrent of darkness,” alluding to the movements of a river or other powerful, moving body of water. In the second line he compares the moon to a “ghostly galleon” that appears like a “galleon,” or large ship, that’s being “tossed upon the clouds”. This brings the image of water into the poem again.
The third metaphor compares the road to a “ribbon of moonlight” that is running over the “purple moor”. The road is an important part of the poem that plays a major role later on. It appears shining in amongst the previous darker images.
Along the road comes the main character of the poem, the highwayman. Noyes uses repetition to emphasize the movement of the man and his horse. He is “riding— / “Riding—riding—“. He comes all the way up to the “inn”.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,(…)His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
In the second stanza, the description of the highwayman begins. He has a “French cocked-hat on his forehead” and “a bunch of lace at his chin”. These phrases refer to his fancy clothes and the lace that’s poking out from the top of his shirt. There are no wrinkles, nor could there ever be, in his pants and he has a “jewelled twinkle” about him. He is shining with importance. The word “twinkle” is used three times in the last three lines to describe his pistols, rapier, and general aspect.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.(…)Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
Noyes makes use of alliteration in the first line of the third stanza in order to mimic the sound of the highwayman’s movements over the cobblestones. He taps on the shutters but there is no answer. Everything is “locked and barred”. Instead, he decides to whistle, and luckily for him the “landlord’s black-eyed daughter, / Bess” shows up. She is braiding her hair and she comes out to see him. There is a “dark red love-knot” in her hair that is added in a symbol of her love and the relationship to the man.
And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked(…)Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—
The fourth stanza introduces the third character into the poem, “Tim the ostler”. He’s the man who takes care of the horses and he’s listening to this meeting. He has a white face, eyes that make him appear insane or mad, and “hair like mouldy hay”. This is just one example of the powerful imagery that Noyes makes use of throughout this poem.
He, like the highwayman, loves the daughter of the landlord. He listened, eavesdropping, on what the two talk about. There is a great contrast drawn between the lovely daughter, the fancy and confident highwayman, and Tim.
“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,(…)I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”
The second to last stanza of this section of the poem contains the words of the highwayman. He’s going to go “after a prize to-night”. This means that he has some robbing that he plans on accomplishing that night, and then he’ll be back with the sunrise”. His actions and life are clearly romanticized by the poet.
The highwayman knows, and tells Bess, that the law might “press” and follow him “through the day” and the night. If this is the case, then he’s going to wait until night to come and see her again. But, he is determined even if “hell should bar the way” to get there. No matter what, he’ll come back.
He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,(…)Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.
The sixth stanza describes his actions once more. He tries to reach up and touch her and he can just barely. The two are separated by their distance but come together through their mutual love. She lets down her hair and he blushes at the scent of her. He kisses her hair in the darkness of the night. The word “moonlight” is used three lines in this stanza, emphasizes light but also darkness. It helps to create a specific atmosphere for these events to play out in.
The last line describes him riding off “to the west” in order to accomplish what he needs to. He goes into the “west,” not a good symbol for one who wants to come back. The “west” is often used to represent death and the afterlife as that is the direction in which the sun sets.
He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;(…)King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.
The second section of ‘The Highwayman’ begins with the statement “He did not come in the dawning”. When the sun rose he wasn’t there as he intended to be. Nor was he there at noon or at the setting of the sun. This is not a good sign, especially considering the determination he showed in the previous stanzas.
The speaker notices that rather than the highwayman come up the road he sees “a red-coat troop marching”. They resemble a “gypsy’s ribbon” of red coming across the moor. They are “King George’s men” and come right up to the “old inn-door”.
They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.(…)For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.
The men do not talk to the landlord as they probably should but they do drink his ale. They “gagged his daughter” and “bound her” to the narrow bed. These are the villains of the story, men who are certainly going to throw a wrench in the happy relationship that played out in the previous stanzas. The men are setting up an ambush, waiting for the highwayman to return.
There is “hell at every window,” meaning that from any the highwayman could be shot and killed. Terribly, Bess can see out a window the exact spot her lover will return.
They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.(…)I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!
The men “snigger” and joke as they do their job. They are pleased with themselves and cruel taunt the young woman. Bess’s mind is on her “doomed man” who she recalls saying “Watch for me by moonlight”. She knows that he could come at any moment.
She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!(…)The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!
In the fourth stanza, the narrator describes how Bess tries to twist her hands out of the ropes. She struggles, but she does get free. Rather than escape from the room, she decides she’s going to reach for a gun. The “trigger at least was hers!” the last line declares.
The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.(…)And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.
Bess gets up, has the gun, and has it pressed to her breast. She moves as quietly as possible, trying to keep the men from hearing her. She “would not strive again,” the third line says.
Noyes repeats the word “moonlight” three times again in this stanza. There is also a good example alliteration with the repetition of words beginning with “b”. There is a focus in the last lines on the beating of Bess’s heart and the blood in her veins.
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;(…)The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.
In the sixth stanza, there is the sound of “horsehoofs ringing clear”. They’re coming up the path, from the distance, just as Bess and the soldiers predicted. But, it does not appear that the soldiers realize what the sound is.
The highwayman is riding up the road again just as he did in the first stanzas. There is again an emphasis on the word “riding”. Finally, the redcoats realized what was happening. Bess is prepared to put into action her plan.
Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!(…)Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.
The tension is building in these lines as the poem reaches its climax. Still, it is unclear what Bess is trying to do. It is in the last lines of this stanza that that becomes clear. She decides to shoot herself in the breast in order to “warn…him—with her death”. This is the action of a very desperate person.
He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood(…)Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.
It was at the sound of the gunshot that he runs, back to the west from which he came. He doesn’t know what it was, but the narrator does and the scene is a gruesome one.
It was the next day that he heard what had happened. His “face grew grey to hear” that his lover had died.
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,(…)And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.
The highwayman goes back to the inn the next day after hearing what happened to Bess. He’s terribly angry and feels as though he should take revenge. He rides and curses the sky. The highwayman also has his sword at the ready, prepared to kill the red coats her caused her death.
The highwayman, as one might expect, is killed by the soldiers at the inn. He goes “Down like a dog on the highway”. The white lace turns red at his throat.
And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
(…)A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
The last two stanzas of the poem are in italics, symbolizing that they come after the main events outlined in part I and part II. These lines describe how after the events of the poem that the ghosts of the two lovers still reappear around the inn. When the “wind is in the trees” and the environment is in the right state, as it was at the beginning of the poem. The highwayman comes back as he used to.
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
(…)Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
Just like in the past, when the two were alive, he tries to get into the inn. These lines are almost word for word those that came at the beginning of the poem. Bess is there just as she used to be, except now they are both dead. This is a hopeful and warm image at the end of the poem.