Use of Meter in The Highwayman

If a student of mine told me they wanted to write a poem that was half iambic, half anapestic, I would probably tell them that that sounded like a bad idea. Then if they explained that they weren’t going to alternate meters between lines or stanzas, but simply write every line in such a way that it was a mix of iambic (~ /) and anapestic (~ ~ /) feet, I might be nearly certain that the effort was doomed.

But then I read the Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, and I have to admit that it can be done, and fantastically so. (But Alexander Pope could have predicted this: remember his maxim that is an exception meets the purpose of a rule, then that exception becomes the rule for that case.)

The Highwayman is written in hexameter (6 beats per line), but a critic would have a hard time telling if it were in iambic or anapestic hexameter. Consider how this stanza scans:

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,
Pleating a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

/ - - / - - / - - / - - / - /
- - / - - / - - / - - / - / - /
- / - - / - - / - - / - - / - /
- - / - / - / -
/ - / - / -
/ - - / - / - / - - / - /

So why does he do this? And more importantly, why does it work?

The Highwayman is a short narrative poem that describes how a particular road and particular inn came to be haunted: a highwayman had a lover there, and when a trap was laid for him at the inn, she sacrificed herself to warn him; and when he found out about her death, charged recklessly back to get killed himself. Now, what form meter best supports this theme?

“The highwayman came riding” scans naturally as iambic (~ / ~ / ~ / ~). But stop for a moment and imitate the sound of a riding horse– ta-ta-tup ta-ta-tup ta-ta-tup– that scans as anapestic. An anapestic rhythm can be employed to suggest the galloping horse so featured in the poem. Except that I have written before that anapestic meter tends toward jaunty, or even comic, substance, and this poem is in no way comic…

Noyes’ final product seems to have seized the horns of this dilemma. The anapestic feet suggest the galloping horse throughout; but the iambic feet keep the poem grounded, so that it never becomes too jaunty—on the contrary, between the iambic feet and the verbal repetitions, the poem develops with a measured and suspense-generating tone. While most of the lines have a mix of iambic and anapestic feet, the anapests dominate the front half of the lines (each line has a pause between the first three beats and the second three beats), and iambs dominate the back half. Except for the occasional perfect line:

Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

Our galloping horse—perfectly anapestic. But in the next stanza:

King George’s men marching, up to the old inn-door.

Almost entirely iambic–which fits with men marching. And actually, that line can be read either as

(- / - / - / - / - - / - /) or (- / - / - / - || - / - / - /)

the second reading provides a marching step at the pause between the phrases, for a regular march (note that the comma which creates the pause is not at all grammatically necessary; but it is consistent with the rhythm established by the poem).

The meter in the Highwayman accomplishes another goal as well: it allows the author to tell his story with the kind of language fit for telling a story. You see, in short lyric poetry, readers expect a kind of elevated diction and speech; so grammatical inversions and other like irregularities (to a limited extent) are accepted, and even enjoyed. But in a narrative the expectations—and therefore the rules–are different: if we are going to read 96 lines of a story, it had better be written in a flowing, natural pattern, so that we never find it a labor to read.

And it never is a labor. Noyes gives us an engaging and suspenseful story, perfect for telling over a campfire, or in the sitting room in front of the fireplace, in a time when there were no television sets. In fact, I heartily recommend you tell it to somebody that way, as metrical poetry is a beauty to be enjoyed by the ear, not the eye. Read aloud, you will hear the rhythm—without becoming distracted by it—a continuing series of three beats (each hexameter line is divided by a pause into two sections of three beats, and the shorter lines are also three beats each).

Oh, that brings up an interesting poetic device: the caesura as a beat. Note that lines like

Then look for me by the moonlight,
Watch for me by the moonlight,

clearly have 3 beats, but

And the highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding

Appears to have only two in that second line. Well, it would have only two if we were racing through it in prose–and the highwayman came riding riding riding–as our eye might pick it up. But when reading it aloud, as a story, we have a hard pause (the caesura) at the comma, so “Riding, riding,” becomes

/ - || / -

with the pause doing the duty of a poetic foot (in this case, / -). Anyway, read it aloud; read it aloud to someone as a story (don’t tell them it’s a poem, either). Then you’ll feel the beauty of the piece.

Don’t miss this other post about the artistry behind The Highwayman!

And if you liked this post, you might also want to check out this one on Art in Poe’s The Raven, or these other posts analyzing poetic construction. Or, if you are new to formal English meter (or just have to write about it for a school assignment), this post will give you a starting explanation.

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5 responses

  1. I know some people will not be able to read this poem without having Lorena McKennitt singing it in your head. Ah, well; she did a fine job with the piece, so you’re not so bad off.

  2. Ah, finding your eloquent analysis gave my inner poetry geek some exercise for the day. I’ve been meaning to memorize The Highwayman for years; perhaps I’ll get on that so I can do as you suggested and recite it to someone aloud.

    1. I am delighted to hear that, LadyGrave, and hope I can continue to encourage your inner poetry geek. Expect another entry on The Highwayman this weekend (it’ll be discussing word connotations, and trade-offs in choosing the right expression). I plan on reviewing a poem like this with one or two posts each week; feel free to suggest a particular poem or author if you’d like.

  3. […] Learn more about this poem: Word Choices in the Highwayman Meter in the Highwayman […]

  4. […] my last post, I discussed metrical choices in The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. This time I aim to discuss word choices in the crafting of a poem; and fortunately, The Highwayman […]

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