The Highwayman (poem)

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"The Highwayman" is a 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, a landlord'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 in West Surrey 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 effective use of vivid imagery for the background and of repetitious phrases to create the sense of a horseman riding at ease through the rural darkness to a lovers' tryst or of soldiers marching down the same road to ambush him.

"The Highwayman" is reputed to be "the best narrative 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]

Adaptations and use in popular culture[edit]

The poem was adapted as a cantata for mixed voices and orchestra by American composer Deems Taylor in 1914, first performed at the McDowell Festival, Peterborough, N.H., with E.G. Hood as director, and the baritone Reinald Weathermen, as soloist.

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 1966 the poem was put to music by Phil Ochs in his album I Ain't Marching Anymore.

In 1976, rock singer and Fleetwood Mac vocalist Stevie Nicks wrote a song called "The Highwayman" that draws inspiration from the poem. The song was recorded and included in her 1981 solo album Bella Donna. Interestingly, the music video for Fleetwood Mac's 1988 single "Everywhere" uses the narrative of the poem as its story, although the song's lyrics are unrelated to the poem.

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]

In 1985, it was recited in "Anne of Green Gables" Canadian miniseries, by the title character, Anne Shirley.

Loreena McKennitt set the poem to music and released the song on her 1997 album, The Book of Secrets.

In 2000, Andy Irvine released an adaptation of McKennitt's song on his album Way Out Yonder.

In 2002, the American author Deborah Ballou published The Highwayman: A Novel Inspired by Alfred Noyes' Poem.

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.

See also[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 (1951 film)
  7. ^ (Greenaway Winner 1981). Living Archive: Celebrating the Carnegie and Greenaway Winners. CILIP. Retrieved 2012-09-03.

External links[edit]