The Highwayman (poem)

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The Highwayman

"The Highwayman" is a romantic ballad poem written by Alfred Noyes, first published in the August 1906 issue[1] of Blackwood's Magazine, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. The following year it was included in Noyes' collection, Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems, becoming an immediate success. In 1995 it was voted 15th in the BBC's poll for "The Nation's Favourite Poems".[2]


The poem, set in 18th-century rural England, tells the story of an unnamed highwayman who is in love with Bess, an innkeeper's daughter. Betrayed to the authorities by Tim, a jealous ostler, the highwayman escapes ambush when Bess sacrifices her life to warn him. Learning of her death, he dies in a futile attempt at revenge, shot down on the highway. In the final stanza, the ghosts of the lovers meet again on winter nights.


The poem was written on the edge of a desolate stretch of land known as Bagshot Heath, where Noyes, then aged 24, had taken rooms in a cottage. 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." The poem was completed in about two days.[3]

Literary qualities[edit]

The poem makes use of vivid imagery to describe surroundings; plus repetitious phrases to create the sense of a horseman riding at ease through the rural darkness to a lovers' tryst and soldiers marching down the same road to ambush him.

"The Highwayman" is reputed to be "the best ballad poem in existence for oral delivery".[4]

Almost half a century later, Noyes wrote, "I think the success of the poem... was because it was not an artificial composition, but was written at an age when I was genuinely excited by that kind of romantic story."[3]

Literary techniques[edit]

The Highwayman uses hexameter that mixes iambs and anapests. Noyes frequently uses alliteration, such as the phrase "ghostly galleon", and also uses refrains in each stanza. The genre of this poem seems to be a romance, but like Romeo and Juliet, the poem turns out to be a tragedy in the end. This poem can also be called a ballad.

Adaptations and use in popular culture[edit]

  • In 1933, a setting of the poem for chorus and small orchestra by the English composer C. Armstrong Gibbs received its first performance at Winchester College Music School.[5]
  • In 1951, the poem was used as the basis for a feature-length Hollywood film of the same name, starring Philip Friend and Wanda Hendrix.[6] Noyes writes in his autobiography that he was pleasantly surprised by "the fact that in this picture, produced in Hollywood, the poem itself is used and followed with the most artistic care".[3]
  • In 1965, American folksinger Phil Ochs set the poem to music on his second album, "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore." His arrangement has since been covered by other musicians, as well.
  • In 1981, Oxford University Press published an edition of the poem illustrated by Charles Keeping in black and white. He won the annual Kate Greenaway Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book illustration by a British subject.[7]
  • The Scottish children's author Nicola Morgan used the poem as the background for her historical novels, The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse.
  • The Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt adapted it as a folk song on her album The Book of Secrets
  • The video to the 1988 hit pop song "Everywhere" by the rock band Fleetwood Mac is based on this poem
  • The book Angela’s Ashes mentioned briefly after a sick, 14 year old girl tells poems to the protagonist, Frank McCourt
  • It inspired the 2011 illustrated children's book The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson
  • The music album "The Highwayman" by Karliene was inspired by the poem.


  1. ^ "The Highwayman". Blackwood's Magazine on Internet Archive. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  2. ^ "Alfred Noyes". BBC Mid Wales. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Alfred Noyes 'Two Worlds for Memory. Philadelphia: J. B. Clipping, 1953, p. 38.
  4. ^ Iona and Peter Opie (eds). The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse. Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 399.
  5. ^ Armstrong Gibbs, p. 15.
  6. ^ "The Highwayman". 12 August 1951 – via IMDb.
  7. ^ (Greenaway Winner 1981)