(Poem #13) 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-- Riding--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 (O 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-- 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 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-- Riding--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-- Riding--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-- Bess, the landlord's daughter-- Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
This is a poem I can rarely glance at without reading all the way through, and can rarely read without a shiver. It is also, IMHO, one of Noyes' most perfect poems, in terms of effortless, compelling rhythm and simple, yet wonderfully lyrical phrases. Loreena McKennitt has a hauntingly beautiful version on her album 'The Book of Secrets'. Biographical Notes: English poet, a traditionalist remembered chiefly for his lyrical verse. Noyes' first volume of poems, The Loom of Years (1902), published while he was still at the University of Oxford, was followed by others that showed patriotic fervour and a love for the sea. He taught modern English literature at Princeton University in the United States from 1914 to 1923. Of Noyes's later works, the most notable is the epic trilogy The Torch-Bearers (1922-30), which took as its theme the progress of science through the ages. His autobiography, Two Worlds for Memory, appeared in 1953. -- Encyclopaedia Britannica Criticism: Alfred Noyes was born at Staffordshire, September 16, 1880. He is one of the few contemporary poets who have been fortunate enough to write a kind of poetry that is not only saleable but popular with many classes of people. [...] What is most appealing about his best verse is its ease and heartiness; this singer's gift lies in the almost personal bond established between the poet and his public. People have such a good time reading his vivacious lines because Noyes had such a good time writing them. -- Louis Untermeyer, Modern British Poetry And, in contradistinction His first book, The Loom of Years (1902), was published when he was only 22 years old, and Poems (1904) intensified the promise of his first publication. Swinburne, grown old and living in retirement, was so struck with Noyes's talent that he had the young poet out to read to him. Unfortunately, Noyes has not developed his gifts as deeply as his admirers have hoped. His poetry, extremely straightforward and rhythmical, has often degenerated into cheap sentimentalities and cheaper tirades; it has frequently attempted to express programs and profundities far beyond Noyes's power. -- ibid. [See <http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/mbp/58.html> for the whole essay, which is longish] Martin