The Highwayman

Album: The Book Of Secrets (1997)
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  • The Highwayman was written by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958). Although it was published early on in his career - in a 1907 anthology - it is probably the best known of his works, widely admired for its imagery and some supposedly hidden moral, but in essence it is a rather sordid tale. The highwayman - who is not named - keeps a night time assignation with his lover, Bess, the daughter of an inn keeper, and tells her of a robbery he plans to commit later that night. They are overheard by an ostler who betrays them out of jealousy.

    The next day, a troop of soldiers appear at the inn, but their behavior is more reminiscent of a mob than of a disciplined fighting force. The inn keeper is abused, his daughter is tied up and gagged, and there are overtones of sexual abuse, though this is not stated explicitly, probably because of publishing restrictions.

    As the soldiers lie in wait for her lover to return, Bess manages not quite to free herself but to reach one of their guns, and ends up shooting herself dead. The highwayman is alerted, and rides off. The next day he learns of her death, but is hunted down and killed by the same soldiers, possibly having lost the will to live, and thus the two lovers are reunited for all eternity.

    This poem has a theme that was already well worn by the turn of the 20th Century; the forces of law and order are demonized, while a vagabond who robs travelers at gunpoint and would probably not hesitate to shoot and perhaps kill innocent people to fill his purse, is painted as a hero of the night. Even the inn keeper's daughter was no better than a mobster's moll, but such are the follies of both literature and music.
  • The Noyes poem has been set to music before, but the Loreena McKennitt version - which includes most but not all of this very lengthy poem - is probably as good as a work like this will ever get. Foolish romanticizing aside!

    The poem was given an entirely different treatment from the point of view of the highwayman by Wishbone Ash with "Stand And Deliver." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Alexander Baron - London, England, for above 2

Comments: 9

  • AllisonThis is in response to Caroline from Iowa. I would look up the soundtrack to Last of the Mohicans. VERY similar stylings.
  • Dimitrios Bekas from GermanyI love the quality of answers given to this maxxed out stupid interpretation, trying to explain the song...i have seen a lot of stupid things in my life, this here has a special place on my list for sure. Damn, some people should not try to write for others, when they can´t even open their eyes to acknowledge what is obvious...even a 5y old would understand.

    Thankfully, there are legit and experienced people around the globe that corrected your fault...anyway, i hope Mr. oder Mrs. SongFacts Journalist dont take this here too personal...but damn it hurts re-reading it again now. My brain is pownding, i need painkillers :D :D :D (sorry for my bad english, its only on 3rd place for the languages i flexx, just a fact, thank you...)

    With a warm "have a nice day..." directly from Germany, written by a greek (as if that matters at all)...the song is killing me every time i hear it,...from the inside.

  • Lion from FloridaThank you to Chandler Billings and Ginger-lyn Summer for your comments. I was HIGHLY incensed at the characterization of Bess as a "Mobster's Moll. Would you refer to Lady Marian in the same manner if this were a song about Robin Hood?

    Besides the excellent points made by Chandler and Ginger-lyn, let me add a few more. Chandler brought up the subject of taxation. From what I can gather, land taxes ran about 2-4 Shillings to the pound, based on land value.This was paid by every land owner from the lowest shopkeep to the

    Aside from that there were taxes on everything from salt, beer, soap, starch, salt, leather and candles. This tax was usually paid by the merchant, and resulted in higher costs on everyday products. Consider that the ordinary inn landlord, such as Bess's father utilized every single item on that list, except possibly leather. And of course had to pass these costs on to his custom.

    There were also taxes on luxuries such as fine fabrics, imports like wine and brandy, horses; hats and coaches, silver plate and even on the number of windows (probably glass windows) in your home or business.

    Even so, the Crown often didn't have enough money to cover their wars, and eventually put the whole country into debt, by borrowing towards their wars.

    Can you see this as ticking off the populace? It's no surprise many men took to the road, just to make ends meet. On top of that, many localities were also being taxed by the Church. And then there were plenty of magistrates, tax collectors, clergy and others who were crooked, and making money off the lower classes as well as some of the nobles.

    As to the soldiers, there was no official police force in Britain during the time. And as you can see from the treatment of Bess and her father, "They said no word to the landlord / They drank his ale instead" these soldiers were thugs, not a force of law. If fact, what they were hoping for, besides free beer and the ability to abuse a young woman, was the generous purse given to anyone who captured a highwayman. And back to your categorizing Bess as a "Mobster's Moll, the poem gives us absolute zero suggestion that Bess is even in a sexual relationship with the highwayman. For all we know she is an innocent maiden (until the soldiers show up at least). Between her plaiting a love knot in her hair, and their one kiss, it seems very innocent and much like young love. And since Dad most likely knows about her relationship with the highwayman, it's very possible she's holding out for marriage, once the highwayman raises enough money for him to quit his profession.

    And it gets better - because the highwayman, in many towns was a source of revenue for the town. Even if he wasn't a Robin Hood dispensing money to the poor, he was still a benefit to the local economy. Notice this line,"One kiss my bonny sweetheart / I'm after a prize tonight" That means that the highwayman already has knowledge of the fact that there's a coach on the road with a hefty bit of gold. It's possible that he overheard that information in a tavern himself. It's more likely that he was given the information by one of several informants in the area. That meant money for the informant.

    Now we've got not just the highwayman, but at least one local (probably more) benefiting from taking down the coach. And they're putting money into the economy by eating food, staying in taverns and drinking beer (so that they can hear these rumors) and so forth. Not to mention whatever other items or luxuries they might be purchasing from the locals. And of course the innkeep has to purchase his food - mutton or beef, or potatoes, the grain to make beer/ ale and so forth from the local farmers. It would not surprise me that many of the highwaymen were "open secrets" to many of the locals. They were probably celebrated by many of the townsfolk, and perhaps even given places to hide when the soldiers got too close. It's very possible that Bess's father was one of the highwayman's informants.

    Then there's the political angle, which Chandler touched on. For all you or I or anyone else knows, this particular highwayman was only preying on those who he saw as harming the country or the people. I doubt this was the case for MOST highwaymen, but it's certainly possible for THIS one, since the poem makes no other claim to his motivation beyond gold and love.
  • Caroline from IowaPoem aside, I have been trying to figure out why Lorena McKennitt's version sounds so familiar in the beginning, before the lyrics start. Does anyone else feel that way? Is it a common tune elsewhere, or maybe used in a movie...? I don't think I had heard the song before, yet the opening sounds so familiar.
  • Chandler Billings from Derby, NyI find the chastisement of the highwayman and the inn-keeper's daughter to be highly offensive. Looking at this from a historical standpoint we're dealing with a highwayman, yes, during the reign of either of the three notable King Georges I-III (noting King George's men mentioned in the lyrics of Loreena McKennitt's song). England under the reign of these men was a desperate one, constant conflicts, high taxes in order to fund them. Becoming a highwayman at that time was common as a means of making ends meet. Also, given the several instances of English interference in other parts of Britain in those times (Jacobite Rebellion and the like) highwaymen were hardly uncommon as it was often a strike against a perceived incursion (less perceived so much as accurate at times). By the sound of it the highwayman in the song is aiming to get enough gold that he can actually set himself and Bess up and start a life together. Being a highwayman was never a lifetime plan, but a plan of desperation. Furthermore that he is armed and mounted in the way he is suggests he is better trained, meaning he was either of means, and those means were lost to him, or, that he was a veteran of some sort that lost support following one of the conflicts started by either of the previously mentioned kings. Regardless, I'd wager he was far less the villain in the matter, a victim of circumstance who was forced to desperate measures. Furthermore, given that the men who are after him resort to such barbaric methods to entrap him suggests that these men were no force of law or order, but brutish thugs for the crown, and I'd imagine part of the reason why a highwayman would even be in the region to begin with. It speaks more of an occupying force than a genuine patrol.
  • Rudy Mares from Oak Hills, CaliforniaThis is great song. All be it, tragic, and somewhat heroic, in the sense, that they are reunited in the end, for all eternity.
  • Rick from CaliforniaThe Highwayman by Alfred Noyes has been set to music many times. I have drawn upon the 1960s' balladeer Phil Ochs' masterful and most passionate musical interpretation for this rendition:
    I published my own interpretation of The Highwayman to Soundcloud just before Christmas 2016. As I write this, 16 people have heard it.
    Others seem to me to be constrained by cadence or forced style. The best would be Loreena McKennitt's popular, Celtic-influenced version:
    And then there is this conventional version by Don Partridge, the English folksinger, which I find tedious:
  • David Slifkin from Eugene OrO.K. The version of Highwayman sung by Loreena McKennitt is simple. So is the meaning. Misguided romanticism and crooks with gangster molls! What a laugh! You miss the point. Bonnie and Clyde too! Yes, there are some really screwed up people in the world. But LOVE comes in all shapes. It is not perfect. That is the touching brilliance of the song. The contradiction of morality is why it is so powerful. Two people have a perfect moment in an imperfect world!
  • Ginger-lyn Summer from OhioI must not have read the same poem or heard the same song as you did (Phil Ochs' version, too). This is one of my favorite poems, and I *am* a poet (complete with a Creative Writing degree). It is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of romantic narrative ever written -- a sentiment with which I agree. The romantic notion of the outlaw as hero is part of the human psyche, and has been around probably since Socrates and right on up to the present day. At heart, this is a love story, about two lovers who meet tragedy. It is, indeed, tragic, as it must be, given the characters and setting. The highwayman "pays" for his crimes ultimately, but his life is ended because of love, not villainy. I find the characterization of Bess as "no better than a mobster's moll" jaw-dropping. She is portrayed as a lovely girl, the daughter of a man in good-standing, and her only fault is that she falls in love with a man destined to meet a tragic fate one way or another.

    You do this well-loved poem, and the musical versions of it (McKennitt's being better than Ochs', much as I hate to say it, being a major Phil Ochs fan) a great disservice by your judgmental, snippy review.

    Just my well-read, poet, degreed point of view.
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