The Highwayman

Album: The Book Of Secrets (1997)
  • The wind was a torrent of darkness
    Among the gusty trees
    The moon was a ghostly galleon
    Tossed upon the cloudy seas
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight
    Over the purple moor
    When the highwayman came riding
    Riding, riding,
    The highwayman came riding
    Up to the old inn door

    He'd a french cocked hat at his forehead
    A bunch of lace at his chin
    A coat of claret velvet
    And breeches of brown doe-skin
    They fitted with nary a wrinkle
    His boots were up to the thigh
    And he rode with a jeweled twinkle
    His pistol butts a-twinkle
    His rapier hilt a-twinkle
    Under the jeweled sky

    And over 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

    "One kiss my bonny sweetheart
    I'm after a prize tonight
    But I should 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 the moonlight
    Watch for me by the moonlight
    I'll come to thee by the moonlight
    Though hell should bar the way."

    He rose up right in the stirrups
    He scarce could reach her hand
    But she loosened her hair in the casement
    His face burned like a brand
    As a black cascade of perfume
    Came tumbling over his breast
    And he kissed its waves in the moonlight
    Oh, sweet waves in the moonlight
    He tugged at his rein in the moonlight
    And galloped away to the west

    He did not come at 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
    Looping the purple moor
    A redcoat troop 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 the casement
    With muskets at their side
    There was death at every window
    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 had 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 the moonlight
    Watch for me by the moonlight
    I'll come to thee by the moonlight
    Though hell should bar the way."

    She twisted her hands behind her
    But all the knots held good!
    But she writhed her hands 'til her fingers
    Were wet with sweat or blood
    They stretched and strained in the darkness
    And the hours crawled by like years
    Till now on the stroke of midnight
    Cold on the stroke of midnight
    The tip of her finger touched it
    The trigger at least was hers

    Tot-a-lot, tot-a-lot had they heard it?
    The horse's hooves rang clear
    Tot-a-lot, tot-a-lot in the distance
    Were they deaf 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

    Tot-a-lot in the frosty silence
    Tot-a-lot in the echoing night
    Nearer he came and nearer
    Her face was like a light
    Her eyes grew wide for a moment
    She drew a 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 she stood
    Bowed with her head o'er 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

    And 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 the spurs in the golden noon
    Wine-red was his velvet coat
    When they shot him down in the highway
    Down like a dog on the highway
    And he lay in his blood in the highway
    With a bunch of lace at his throat

    Still on a winter's night they say
    When the wind is in the trees
    When the moon is a ghostly galleon
    Tossed upon the cloudy seas
    When the road is a ribbon of moonlight
    Over the purple moor
    A highwayman comes riding
    Riding, riding,
    A highwayman comes riding
    Up to the old inn door Lyrics from a song in Public Domain

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:
    youtu.be/A9fWjzYiRUE
    I published my own interpretation of The Highwayman to Soundcloud just before Christmas 2016. As I write this, 16 people have heard it.
    https://soundcloud.com/rick-masters/the-highwayman-by-alfred-noyes
    Others seem to me to be constrained by cadence or forced style. The best would be Loreena McKennitt's popular, Celtic-influenced version:
    youtu.be/w3rMG6j7mhA
    And then there is this conventional version by Don Partridge, the English folksinger, which I find tedious:
    youtu.be/mZLhYmG8Fnc
  • 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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