What are the main themes of “The Highwayman”?

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One of the main themes of “The Highwayman” is the astonishing power of love. The eponymous highwayman is so determined to be with his beloved that he's prepared to risk his life, an indication of love's power to inspire people to do remarkable things, even of it leads them to danger.

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The highwayman, as a professional criminal, is used to living a life of danger. If he's caught by the authorities, then he will surely hang. One can imagine, then, that he would go out of his way to avoid capture, refrain from doing anything that might bring his criminal career to a sticky end.

It's all the more surprising to learn, then, that the highwayman is prepared to risk his neck, not for money but for his beloved Bess. Despite all the dangers involved in such an ostensibly harebrained scheme, he resolves to return to her, come what may.

In the event, the king's men are lying in wait for the highwayman when he returns to Bess. In the ensuing chaos, Bess shoots herself dead with a musket. But in doing so, she's managed to prevent her lover from walking straight into a trap.

Although the highwayman duly takes off, he's subsequently shot down “like a dog on the highway.” Both he and his beloved Bess have fallen victim to the power of love. This astonishing force, that most people experience in their lifetime, enticed them into serious danger, which ultimately cost them their lives.

And yet that love, that unbreakable connection, is so strong that it transcends this mortal realm to achieve immortality, and the two lovebirds are able to be together for eternity as spirits.

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What is the central idea of the poem “The Highwayman”?

The central idea of Alfred Noyes's poem “The Highwayman” is that forbidden love, as romantic as it may be, will lead to a tragic end. Bess, daughter of the landlord of a local inn, has fallen in love with a dashing highwayman. He is no proper love for her, for he is a bandit, a robber, who carries his pistols and rapier and preys upon unwary travelers. But that does not matter to Bess. She meets him in the dead of night as she leans out the window, letting him kiss her hair.

But someone else is watching and listening in the shadows. The ostler, Tim, stands with white face and hollow, angry eyes as he witnesses the scene of forbidden love before him. He, too, loves Bess. Tim overhears the highwayman say that he will come back by moonlight the next night. Then Tim goes off and does something with this knowledge and his jealous anger: he brings in the soldiers.

The highwayman is a wanted man. The soldiers are pleased to have the opportunity to catch (or better, kill) him, and they set up their watch at the inn. Apparently, Tim has told them that Bess is in love with the highwayman. The soldiers mistreat her, gagging her and tying her to a musket, kissing and taunting her and then leaving her to watch her lover be shot down in the inn yard.

Bess, however, has another plan. She twists around until she finds the trigger of the musket and then waits until she hears her beloved riding up the road. Then she pulls the trigger. The highwayman hears the musket go off, but he has no idea that Bess has died for him at that moment. Alerted to danger, he rides quickly away. But then at dawn he hears what has happened, and he rides back in madness. The soldiers are still waiting, and the highwayman soon lies dead on the highway. The pair of secret lovers has met with only tragedy as a result of their love, and it seems that even their ghosts cannot rest, for on a winter's night when the wind blows and the moon shines, a highwayman comes riding to meet Bess at her window.

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