The Highwayman (poem)

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"The Highwayman"

"The Highwayman" is a romantic ballad and narrative 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, the landlord's daughter. Betrayed to the authorities by Tim, a jealous hostler/ostler, the highwayman escapes ambush when Bess sacrifices her life to warn him. Learning of her death, he is killed in a futile attempt at revenge ("so they shot him down on the highway, like a dog upon 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 in Surrey, 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 Highwayman" is reputed to be "the best ballad poem in existence for oral delivery".[4] It makes use of vivid imagery to describe surroundings ("the road was a gipsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor - ") and repetitious phrases to emphasise action ("A red-coat troop came marching - marching - marching -"). 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 anapaests. 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 is a tragedy in the end. This poem can also be called a ballad.

Adaptations and use in popular culture[edit]


  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)