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The Highwayman

THE wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding--
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.

He'd a French cocked hat on his forehead, and a bunch of lace at his chin;
He'd a coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of fine doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to his thigh!
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle--
His rapier hilt a-twinkle--
His pistol butts a-twinkle, under the jeweled 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.

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 black-eyed daughter;
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say:

"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart; I'm after a prize tonight,
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 stood 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 sweet black waves of perfume came tumbling o'er his breast,
Then he kissed its waves in the moonlight
(sweet black waves in the moonlight!),
And he tugged at his reins in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

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 over the purple moor,
The redcoat troops came 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 by 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 bound her up at attention, with many a sniggering jest!
They had tied a rifle beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
"Now keep good watch!" and they kissed her. She heard the dead 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, 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 at attention, with the barrel 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 in her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love's refrain.

Tlot tlot, tlot tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hooves, 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--
The redcoats 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 casement, drenched in her own red blood!
Not till the dawn did he hear 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, 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 in the highway,
Down like a dog in the highway,
And he lay in his blood in the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

And still on 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 gypsy's ribbon looping the purple moor,
The highwayman comes riding--
The highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

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--
, the landlord's daughter--
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Alfred Noyes (1880-1958)

The Torch-Bearers is his trilogy that explores the history of science and its links to Christianity containing The Watchers in the Sky(1922), The Book of Earth(1925), and The Last Voyage (1930). However, Alfred Noyes may be better known as the poet of The Highwayman. Published in 1906 it's his probably his best work, best in terms of effortless lyrical phrases, and simple yet compelling rhythm.

Noyes was an English poet and professor of modern English literature at Princeton University from 1914-1923, and a traditionalist. Born at Staffordshire on September 16, 1880 that made him somewhat of a non-conformist for his time. The poem has a modern moral, but sounds very much like one of the ballads that might have been sung in Elizabethan times, but several elements place the time period of the poem in the Georgian period- more than likely middle Georgian, anywhere from 1740-1770 . The phrase "King George's men came marching..." is the tip off, " French cocked hats" were all the rage and highwaymen were uncommon during the early nineteenth century Regency period.

I was introduced to this memorable piece as a young girl with its dramatic interweaving of love, jealousy, heroism and death amid sounds and rhythms, it brings to mind Ezra Pound's bidding: "Listen to the sound that it makes!" This read aloud classic story of sacrifice in the name of true love has been a favorite with generations and still has the power to thrill as the story of the highwayman and his doomed love for the landlord's black-eyed daughter, Bess. Derek Stanford in 1959 wrote in an article published in The Catholic World about the author:

    But it is, of course, with poetry that Noyes' name is most commonly connected. How many classrooms must have thrilled to the elementary but compulsive music of such poems as "The Highwayman," "The Barrel-Organ," and "A Song of Sherwood"! With its rhythmic repetitions and its strong dramatic drive, the first of these pieces shows Noyes at his best. Few poems written this century can have served as the basis of a film-script, but "The Highwayman" was one of them. The magic of its opening translates itself readily into cinematic terms. One sees, as upon the projector's screen, a figure on a horse careering through the night:
      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 wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
      The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Some say that Noyes based the character of the highwayman on the life of Dick Turpin also known as John Palmer (1705 – 1739) a notorious horse thief, as well as, a highwayman.
    By the age of 30 Turpin had committed crimes of murder and highway robbery. As there was a reward of £200 for his capture, Turpin lay low in Holland. When he returned to England, he went north, where he was unknown, and posed as a horse dealer under the name of Palmer, his mother’s maiden name. On 2 October 1738, he was arrested for shooting a cockerel in the town of Brough. A local labourer challenged him over the incident and Turpin threatened to kill him. As a result, he was arrested and taken to court. He was sent to jail as he could not afford to pay bail. During investigations, evidence of his horse-stealing was uncovered and he was sent to the Debtor’s Prison which now forms part of York Castle Museum. His true identity was finally discovered and, on Saturday 7 April 1739, Turpin was hanged on the York Tyburn which is now part of York Racecourse.
His gravestone in Saint Gregory Chruchyard reads, Richard Turpin - Notorius highwayman, also known as John Palmer. Respected citizen of York. Born 1705, hanged at York April 7th 1739 and buried there.

Phil Ochs did a rendition of it in the mid sixties and Lorena McKennitt a very skilled female musician has applied this poem to classical music.


Facts about Dick Turpin:

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes:

PetersNet: Derek Stanford, Alfred Noyes:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

The Wondering Minstrels:

CST Approved

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