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The Highwayman - Alfred Noyes

With today’s poem I revisit a memory from my childhood that resides as a perfect example of an epic, romantic ballad. The Highwayman is a favourite in elocution competitions across the world - It was voted 15th in “The Nation’s Favourite poems” in England, as part of a BBC poll in 1995. It features as a staple in English school textbooks exhibiting all the conventional features of poetic storytelling, using multiple literary devices, with rich imagery, lilting refrains and rhythms.

The all-too conventional drama plot stars a mysterious, dark stranger- masculinity and chivalry oozing, a preening damsel whose dark love-knot glistens in the windy night, and a jaded stable-boy whose jealousy triggers the violent climax. This tale of fatal love ends with the damsel’s sacrifice warning her lover of the evil “King’s men” (the state is, of course, anathema to true love) who use her as bait to capture the Highwayman. Such is his rage when he hears of her selfless sacrifice, that he charges towards his enemies in an extravagant display of bravado and B/Hollywood flourish, and meets his own death in the bargain. The lovers’ tale becomes part of the heady landscape that Noyes so artfully describes, and their tryst is immortalised as a dream that replays from time to time, when the wind whistles in the moors, as a kind of emblem for the immortality of love.

I used to repeat these lines almost feverishly, enjoying the “tlot, tlot”, the rhythm of hooves and marching folded into the poem. I would try and picture the road as a “ribbon of moonlight” and relish the many reds that flame through the poem. Noyes mastery of visual detail and his distinctive rhythms come from a real place.In his autobiography, he recalled: "Bagshot Heath in those days was a wild bit of country, all heather and pinewoods. 'The Highwayman' suggested itself to me one blustery night when the sound of the wind in the pines gave me the first line."

Noyes wrote in a style that was filled with a Romanticism and simplicity characteristic of traditional English verse, a style that was waning around the time he was writing. He disliked the comparative disdain for such conventions and the reaction to these “high” rules that became part of the Modernists’ style. Noyes is said to have written “The Highwayman” in two days when he was 24, “the age when I was genuinely excited by that kind of romantic story.” Maybe, I’m reliving that naivete, and free-spiritedness vicariously. Who knows. Indulge me!

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