The poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes is a sad love poem written in two parts. The author uses a number of literary devices and imagery throughout the poem. It is set at a roadside inn situated outside of a town during the reign of King George. The highwayman, who is well dressed with “lace at his chin,” is a robber who is in love with Bess, the daughter of a local innkeeper. He comes one night to see Bess, and awakens her with his special signal, a whistle. She is a dark-eyed beauty who speaks to him. He tells her he needs a kiss from her because he is on his way to a lucrative night of looting but tells her that he will be back the next day, if not in the morning then the next night. Little do the lovers know that the inn’s hostler, Tim, overhears their conversation.
There is no sign of the highwayman the next day but as evening falls the King’s soldiers arrive at the inn. They do not eat but they do imbibe alcoholic beverages before finding Bess and tying her to her bed. They place a musket under her breast so that if she moves, it will fire and kill her. But Bess is not concerned with their advances; she only thinks of her lover, the highwayman, and searches for a way to alert him that the soldiers lie in wait for him. She is able to move her fingers in their bindings so that she can fire the musket. They all wait to hear the sounds of the highwayman’s horse upon the road. When she hears the sounds of the hooves, Bess pulls the trigger, killing herself in a warning shot meant to save her lover. He lets out a scream when he realizes what she has done, and turns to ride away but the soldiers’ bullets kill him along the roadside.
The poem does not end there. It goes on to explain that the ghost of the highwayman can sometimes be seen going to the door of the inn on cold misty nights. The lovers may have died, but their phantoms are hauntingly alive.
Just a quick note: If you want to understand "The Highwayman" better and enjoy it far more, listen to it put to music and sung by Loreena McKennitt. She is actually a Canadian born musician who specializes in using "ancient" authentic instruments. You can find it on Youtube. She does a great "Lady of Shalott" too.
The poem may seem a little redundant for our tastes with all the repetition, but listen to it set to music and it's hard not to be moved by it and fall in love with it.