Heart Happy (cathy_edgett) wrote,
Heart Happy
cathy_edgett

Poetry Daily -



Each Monday morning during the year I receive a poem by email from Poetry Daily, but in the month of April, Poetry Month, I receive a poem each day, chosen by someone who then comments.   This is a poem we probably all remember from school, but reading it today and then with the explanation expands my absorption.  Julianna suggests we each read the poem aloud today.  Try it and see what comes when your vocal cords and lungs expand with the words.



Julianna Baggott's Poetry Month Pick, April 11, 2008

"The Highwayman"
by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958)

Part One

                                      I
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding –
                         Riding – riding –
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

                                      II
He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
                         His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

                                      III
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
                         Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

                                      IV
And dark in the old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord's daughter,
                         The landlord's red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say –

                                      V
"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
                         Watch for me by moonlight,
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way."

                                      VI
He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i' the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
                         (Oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

Part Two

                                      I
He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o' the tawny sunset, before the rise o' the moon,
When the road was a gipsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching –
                         Marching – marching –
King George's men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

                                      II
They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
                         And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through the casement, the road that he would ride.

                                      III
They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
"Now keep good watch!" and they kissed her. She heard the dead man say –
Look for me by moonlight;
                         Watch for me by moonlight;
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

                                      IV
She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till here fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
                         Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

                                      V
The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
                         Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love's refrain.

                                      VI
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs
ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did
not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding,
                         Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up strait and still!

                                      VII
Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
                         Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him – with her death.

                                       VIII
He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord's daughter,
                         The landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

                                      IX
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
                         Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

                        *    *    *    *    *    *

                                      X
And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding –
                         Riding – riding –
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

                                      XI
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard,
And he taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
                         Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.



Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.* Julianna Baggott Comments:

In sixth grade, my parents moved me from an inner-city public school – where I’d seen a teacher beaten by a student on a fire escape – to a rural Catholic school run by a small but seemingly self-governed order of Oblate nuns. The school was surrounded by fields which were mown by the nuns in full habit astride tractors. In general, the nuns had been raised on farms, but the order was stationed in France and so all of the nuns had spent their novitiate year in Paris. They whispered to each other in French, and wore long wooly habits and boxy wimples year-round. Their habits belled at the bottoms and it seemed like they floated instead of walked.

Here, I met a nun, whom I’ll call Sister L. T. She taught the weekly class in oration, my favorite class. She immediately entered me into speech contests, and, for the first one, she suggested I memorize and recite "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes.

At the time, I didn’t give her choice much thought. I loved the poem which is lusty and violent, and as I read it now, I’m stunned by how iconic the narrative has become. A love triangle, it’s implied that Tim the ostler has betrayed Bess and her lover out of the spite of unrequited love. Bess is held hostage by the red coats sado-masochistically – "They bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!" – while kissing her against her will, indicating rape. She struggles against the ropes enough to get a finger on the trigger to warn her lover at the cost of her own life. When her lover hears the news, he turns back to seek revenge and is shot like "a dog on the highway./ And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat."

I imagine myself as an eleven-year-old in a long plaid skirt with a white turtle neck, my big eyes and scrawny frame and my wild gestures and how, with that final line, I held my own fist to my throat and let the words hang dramatically in the air.

And, here, in the final stanza, the poem becomes a ghost story – the highwayman and Bess locked together forever.

This fall, I published a novel, The Slippery Map, under the pen name N.E. Bode, dedicated to the nuns in my life and it was appropriate that I stop at her school to do an author visit. She is now is the principal of Catholic school struggling to withstand a suburban exodus. She still wears a full habit and, in a quiet moment in her office, she told me that she wouldn’t have ever expected it, but that she and the other nuns are “counter-cultural” now. She organizes morning and afternoon drop-off and pick-up with a bullhorn strapped to her chest.

I brought up "The Highwayman" during my talk, and Sister, who was standing beside me, said, "That’s my favorite poem."

And why? At first I thought that it was because it’s such a dark view of the dangers of romantic love. Sister L. T. sacrificed romantic love and so, one could say, this poem confirms that she made a wise decision.

But that didn’t seem right. It was too narrow and mean-spirited a reading and doesn’t fit the woman that I know and admire.

And so I turned to the poem again. It's the story of a woman who fell in love with a thief, but not just any thief. He’s a highwayman, which means he steals from those wealthy enough ride the highways, and he's hunted by the authorities who are corrupt and villainous. In this way, he is uplifted, if not sharing some Christ-like traits. And Bess, she loves him. It is a true love, but never consummated. He asks for a kiss, but he can scarcely reach her hand. She lets down her hair instead. When an Oblate nun takes her final vows, she dresses like a bride and the ritual is much like that of a wedding. In fact, she is called a bride of Jesus. Bess is ready to sacrifice her life for him and she does so, without hesitation. Sister, too, has given her life to Jesus, and that love – true and rich and deep – doesn’t end in death. That love goes on forever – as does the ghostly ending of this poem.

This poem has gone out of fashion – with its heavy rhythms and loud rhymes and its shared cadence with such poems as "'Twas The Night Before Christmas." But it’s a rich, dark, and haunting tale – and especially violent, sexually explicit and counter cultural for its era. Those who can see beyond its cocked hat and breeches will find a poem that feels good to read aloud – in the mouth and the chest. In fact, I suggest you do just that: read it aloud and, at the perfect moment, raise your fist to your throat.

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. About Julianna Baggott:
Julianna Baggott is the author of three collections of poetry, including Lizzie Borden in Love and Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees. She teaches at Florida State University’s Creative Writing Program. You can visit her at www.juliannabaggott.com


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