The Highwayman

Album: The Book Of Secrets (1997)


  • 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 romanticising 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: 4

  • 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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