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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:

  • 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.
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  • 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: Timnote 's plan.
  • No Name Given: The highwayman, again. Also the landlord.
  • Rapunzel Hair: Bess and the highwayman try to touch hands, but even with him standing up, he can barely reach her. So she unties her hair, which falls easily to his face — so we're talking hair that's at least four feet long.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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