Friday, October 5, 2012

Lyrically Speaking: Lyric Review of The Highwayman


By JccKeith


A Brief History:

  • The original poem was written by Alfred Noyes and first published in 1906 in Blackwood Magazine.  In 1997, Loreena McKennitt adapted the poem into a song.


Now to be honest, I did not already know when it was first published.  The above information has been provided to you courtesy of the Internet, mostly Wikipedia.  What I know about the poem was what I read in a middle school English class.  


The Highwayman
& Landlord's Daughter
I loved it, it was romantic and I really felt I could see the images described, hear the soldiers marching, feel the desperation of the Landlord's daughter.  It was one of the first poems I had ever read that came alive for me in an entirely new way.  Changed my view of poems and made me want to know more about the art of writing poetry. 

Then I discovered Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde and so many others.  A lifelong love of poetry began.

Enamored as I was of the poem, I was thrilled to hear it put to music by McKennitt in her album The Book of Secrets.  Although she shortens the poem by three verses, it is still incredible.  Following is a video clip of McKennitt's version:

[Lyrics to the song posted at bottom of article]


  • The lyrics of the song, identical to the poem, tell the tragic romantic story of a highwayman and a landlord's daughter.


For those who are not familiar with the word, a highwayman was a term used primarily in Great Britain and Ireland and referred to thieves who preyed on travelers.  A highwayman rode a horse as opposed to thieves who traveled on foot.  In the hierarchy of thieves, a highwayman was above those on foot.  This is not to mention the imagery of a mounted outlaw is much more appealing than a robber on foot.




Understanding the term of highwayman is important to understand a key factor in the lyrics.  The red coats mentioned, King George's men, marching up to the old inn door, are British soldiers.  The soldiers are hunting down the highwayman for his crimes.

At the beginning of the lyrics, we learn that the highwayman, whose name is unknown, visits the landlord's daughter Bess and they are in love.  Unfortunately, Tim, the olster, is listening and also happens to be in love with Bess.  This verse is omitted in the song but exists in the original poem.  It is insinuated it is Tim who informs the red coats of the highwayman's promise to return to the inn in the moonlight.  In the song, skipping the verse about Tim, the red coats just show up at the inn at sunset.


Bess Bound with Musket
When the red coats arrive, they drink the innkeeper's ale and then tie up the daughter Bess with a musket at her breast.  Bound upright and at attention, she faces the window to see the road on which the highwayman will ride to the inn.  Distraught with knowing her love is due to return at any time and certain he will come, as he told her, 



"Ill come to thee by the moonlight, though hell should bar the way."

Bess cannot bear the thought of his being killed so she spends the night twisting and writhing her wrists against the bindings despite the pain and possible bleeding it causes. Finally she reaches the trigger of the musket. She is somewhat comforted knowing she can at least fire the musket to warn her love, even if it kills her. True, absolute love as so often portrayed in romantic poetry, Bess is willing to sacrifice her own life to save the man she loves. As she hears him approaching, getting closer and closer, you can feel her panic, her desperation as she wonders why the red coats have not heard him. The lyrics emphasize this pulsing, increasing intensity with the repetitive sounds,”

Tlot-tlot, Tlot-tlot” and “The highwayman came riding, Riding, riding!” 

Notice the placement of the repetitive sounds of the horse and of the character’s movements. They always occur at moments of emotional intensity to add to the effect. ‘Nearer he came and nearer!’ and then as Bess fires the musket, warning him with her death, we hear “Then her finger moved in the moonlight, Her musket shattered the moonlight, shattered her breast in the moonlight…” There is finality to the sound of the words. A downward turn of emotion as the highwayman hears the gun and rides away oblivious to Bess’s sacrifice for his life.

When the highwayman hears it was Bess who fired the musket and sacrificed herself for him he is mad with rage, shrieks a curse to the sky and brandishing his weapon, rides towards revenge. Alas, this is a tragic romantic tale as the highwayman is killed in a bloody turn of events,

“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 the bunch of lace at his throat.” 

The final verse of the song is thus:
Still of 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.

A final reference to the eternal nature of love, that even after death, these two souls are still in love. A common component of tragic romances, the ghosts return to the scene of the tragedy. The ghost of the highwayman returns to the inn on still winter nights when the wind is in the trees, when the moon is clouded. His ghost “comes riding, Riding, riding”

“A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.”


A hauntingly beautiful tale of true love tragically ended, there are other interpretations to this story told in the lyrics. I believe the author intended the reader to see it as a tragic romance and a set of wrongful deaths. Just for the sake of a different point of view, however, ask yourself how you would feel about the highwayman’s death if you had been one of his unlucky victims. If you were "the prize" he speaks of in the beginning lyrics, if it was your "yellow gold" he wanted to steal?  If he had robbed you, would you have felt so sorry for him or might you have felt he deserved it? 

Perhaps the highwayman killed some of the people he robbed, perhaps he himself was a murderer. The red coats are just doing their job, yes they are mean spirited and cruel but in essence they are hunting down a villain. There is no evidence, other than his love for the landlord’s daughter Bess, that the highwayman is a good guy or even a nice guy. He is not robin hood after all, he is not robbing the rich to give to the poor. We as readers/listeners have absolutely no knowledge about the highwayman other than his devotion to Bess. Does being in love atone for all other crimes a person has committed?

I point this out to illustrate how well the imagery and repetition serve the intended feel of the poem. Even the way Loreena McKennitt sings the song, in a slow, emotional tone, make one feel as though a terrible tragedy has occurred. I doubt many think of these lyrics in any other way than a romantic ballad of love. The feel of this song does in fact make it seem that no matter the crimes of the highwayman, no matter what kind of person he is, because he is in love and exhibits devotion to his love, even after death, we as readers/listeners forgive him everything else. That is the power of effective imagery, repetition, rhyme and tone in lyrics, to make the listener feel what you want them to feel and convey your story so the listener hears what you intended them to hear. 

Lyrics to The Highwayman as adapted by Loreena McKennitt:

provided by elyrics.net

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
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, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to he thigh!
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark innyard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, an 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 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 the moonlight;
Watch for me by the moonlight,
I'll come to thee by the 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 at the dawning; he did not come at noon,
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise o' the moon,
When the road was a gypsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat 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 by the 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 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 for thee by the 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, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it!
The trigger at least was hers!

Tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs were ringing clear
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 straight and still!

Tlot in the frosty silence! 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 she stood
Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched in 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 the 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 the bunch of lace at his throat.

Still of 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.

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