by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

The Highwayman

Posted 11 March 2008 in by Catriona

The moon is a crescent tonight, and it reminds me of The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes’s poem from 1906.

For some reason, it’s always the crescent moon that makes me think of “the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.” I’ve never seen a crescent moon ride horizontally rather than vertically, and I fear for the crew of a vertical galleon. But I don’t like to think too much about it, because I love this poem.

I don’t even know why. And, oddly enough for me, I can’t even remember when I first read or heard the poem. It seems as though I’ve always known it.

In a way, it reminds me of hearing Old English spoken—or, I suppose, more properly, read. I don’t understand the words, I have no vocabulary to draw on, and it may as well be gibberish—but it isn’t. It draws on some deep centre of my brain as though the language that I love, and speak every day, and work with, and revere as one of the most flexible modes of writing on earth gives me some degree of understanding of its alien root.

Fanciful? Yes. But it’s the best way I can think to describe it.

And “The Highwayman” draws a similar response from me—not as deep or primal, but similar. It’s not the only text that does so—Poe’s The Raven is another example—but it only happens when it’s a work that I seem to have known for as long as I’ve been alive.

Is “The Highwayman” good poetry?

I don’t know.

I’m not capable of judging.

It gives me goosebumps every time I read it, and I must have read it a hundred times by now.

Perhaps there’s a shadowing here of the nostalgia created by the fact that I, like so many young girls, favoured fatal love fantasies when I was younger; once upon a time, it seemed romantic to die of leprosy—or some such—in, if I can use this cliche, the pursuit of love. (And I’m not alone; look at Anne of Green Gables and Agatha’s Christie’s autobiography, to name just two.)

I grew out of it, but perhaps a shadow remains to lend some sympathy to the black-eyed landlord’s daughter, Bess the landlord’s daughter, resolving on gripping the trigger if she couldn’t free herself from her bonds.

But I think the real secret is the rhythm.

Take these verses as an example:

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-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 who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the 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.

As I say, I don’t know if it’s good poetry. I do know that Noyes is profligate with his exclamation marks, which normally bothers me.

Is it doggerel? Not is we accept Wikipedia’s definition, because the metre here, the rhythm, the movement of the poem is where its evocative power lies.

Anyone who’s read my Ode to Pirates and the consequent silly but immensely fun comment thread knows that I’m no poet.

Perhaps, then, I’m easily moved by poetry that speaks on a shallow level.

Certainly, I’m no fan of Macauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome but I appreciated, and even thrilled to, the verses from “Horatius” when they were recited in an episode of the new series of Doctor Who:

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

Shallow? Or just a poor judge of poetry?

I hope neither is true of my love for “The Highwayman,” or I won’t know how to celebrate the next crescent moon.

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