The Highwayman

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By English poet Alfred Noyes

From the Book: The Highwayman. This is version of The Highwayman, copyrighted 1906, 1913. There is an older version, but I have not located it.

An extraordinary version of this poem has been set to music by Lorena McKennitt on her album, The Book of Secrets

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-
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,
And 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 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 i’ 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,
(Oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o’ the tawny sunset, before the rise o’ the moon,
When the road was a gipsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop 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 at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through the casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They bound a musket 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 here fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one figure 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 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 of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs 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 strait 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 red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, 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 i’ 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-
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard,
And 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 Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Jessica

    Can you explain this poem to me cause I dont get it plz!!!!

  2. Victoria

    can u plz send me a analysis of this poem and also an essay plzzz thanks

  3. Steph Mineart

    Sorry, I can’t do your homework for you. I have my own stuff to do.

  4. lucy

    this poem is really sad and really moving that she new she would die but she loved him so much she died for him
    i like this poem although its quite long

  5. kim

    i think the poem of the highway man is not that suprising to me. As when you are that deeply in love you would do anything for the other person.

  6. darnold

    There is a really beautiful video/audio of Loreena McKennitt’s version of The Highwayman at Check it out. She does omit three verses of the poem in her version however.

  7. Leah

    I love that poem. I actually heard Loreena McKennit’s song a long time before even knowing about the poem. I was about 11 at the time. I love your site, by the way. I found it about a year ago and I always come to your poetry page.

  8. Frank

    Several people on this site and elsewhere have noted Loreena McKennit’s beautiful musical adaptation of this poem. They might also be interested to know that Phil Ochs, known for many folk and protest songs from the ’60s, also put it to music, quite beautifully, as well, I think. It’s on a collection of his music by a variety of performers called What’s That I Hear?
    Also, there was a movie version put out, I think, in the 1950s.

  9. Denise

    I don’t thnk it was posted in the 1950’s more likely in the late 1880’s.
    i like this poem reading it i went through a range of emoions

  10. Ashley

    My best friend signed the words to the song for me (McKennitt version), and I read the lyrics; I found the poem some time later and fell in love with it. This poem is one of my all time favorites!
    And to answer Jessica (first post), the poem starts out the way you see it; then the lovers die (she died giving him a warning, he to be with her) and it ends with the same verse as the first – showing they are now ghosts and haunting the Inn they knew in life.

  11. William

    Now 61 years old I remember quite vividly the poem being read out in lesson at school when I was 12 years old.
    I have five children, all boys, and each and every one of them enjoyed and were just as mystified by its reading as I was.
    They have inturn read the same poem to their children.
    so strange how one poem can intrigue one family throughout each generation.

  12. jon skinner

    I memorized this poem and recited it to the class in the 6th grade. It still haunts me with its beauty….

  13. Sarah

    Ah, the tragic beauty of star crossed lovers.
    I had an assignment in the 5th grade to read this poem and every once and a while I have to google it and read it again.

  14. Georgi

    This poem is perhaps the best I ever read…
    I admire the author for sharing such magnificent piece of tragic romance.
    Its truly rare gem…

  15. yo mama

    this poem is hard and touching it made me cry Fact:i cry but chuck norris makes people cry

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