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Literature / The Highwayman

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The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
—The opening lines.

Written by Alfred Noyes in 1906, The Highwayman is a poem about, well, a highwayman who is in love with a landlord's daughter in 18th-Century England and is betrayed to the authorities by the ostlernote  while out robbing. It ends badly.

The poem has remained popular through the years, and was in 1995 voted 15th in the poll for England's favourite poems. Loreena McKennitt has also sung a musical version omitting some verses.

Tropes in this ballad:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Tim the ostler is described as ugly, with eyes that are "hollows of madness" and "hair like moldy hay." He loves Bess, but she loves the highwayman.
  • Adapted Out: Tim the ostler is absent from Loreena McKennitt's version. As a result, there's no apparent reason given for why the king's army came to ambush the highwayman at the inn.
  • Banging for Help: A variation when Bess, tied up, shoots herself to warn her lover away.
  • Bound and Gagged: Bess through most of the second half.
  • Book Ends: The last two verses repeat the first and the third one.
  • Curtains Match the Window: Bess, the landlord's black-haired, black-eyed daughter.
  • Death Is Dramatic: And how! Both deaths in the poem, those of Bess and the highwayman, are described in detail and take up a good section of the verses in which they happen.
  • Downer Ending: Bess kills herself to save the highwayman, then he dies trying to avenge her.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The highwayman.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Tim just so happens to hear the highwayman talking all about his plans to Bess. Uh-oh.
  • Expy: The highwayman is one of Dick Turpin.
  • Flying Dutchman: How it all ends— the narration presents a windy night, eerie and dark, and then the highwayman rides up once again towards the inn, and Bess is still waiting at the window, braiding her hair. Forever.
  • Forced to Watch: The redcoats truss Bess up so she can see the road that her lover would ride — had things gone according to their plan — she would have been able to see the red coats shoot him as well.
  • Foreshadowing: The opening lines foreshadow the ghostly ending.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Bess frees herself just enough to be able to reach the trigger of the musket tied next to her. With no more time, she pulls it, killing herself and warning the approaching highwayman away from the redcoats' trap.
  • Heroic Vow: I'll come to thee by the moonlight, though Hell should bar the way.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Tim, who loves Bess, overhears her highwayman lover telling her when he'll return to the inn, and tells the redcoats where he'll be so they can get him.
  • No Name Given: The highwayman, again. Also the landlord.
  • Revenge Before Reason: What leads the highwayman to end up walking right into the ambush his love had given her life to warn him of.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Bess's sacrifice to save the highwayman comes to nothing because when he hears of Bess's death, his rage overtakes him and he returns to the inn, where he's shot dead on the spot.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Tim is implied to be this.
  • Together in Death: The final lines imply this for Bess and the highwayman.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Tim tells the redcoats about where the highwayman will be. He probably just intended to get the highwayman killed, but because the redcoats are sadists, they tie Bess up with a musket beneath her breast so she'll have to watch them shoot her lover. She shoots herself to warn the highwayman, and when he sees her dead, he ends up charging straight into the ambush and getting himself killed.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The landlord, Bess's father. He's given the tiniest mention when the redcoats show up, but it's never revealed what became of him. The music video for Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere", which adapts the poem, has him be the victim of a Tap on the Head by the Redcoats.