Word choices in The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

In 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 is an excellent poem for discussing those as well. So let us continue to look at this work, and see if we can make ourselves better poets by investigating…

The Highwayman begins with three strong metaphors:

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,

So, why does the poet use metaphor here (as opposed to simile, or naturalistic description)—and why these metaphors in particular? Well, recall that Noyes writes the beginning with the end in mind: he knows what story he is about to tell us, and needs to set the stage for it. Now, his story ends with the tale that the ghost of the highwayman still rides to the old inn door, where his lover had died in a vain attempt to save his life. So he wants to select images that support this theme; and metaphor will do that more directly than naturalistic description. (Selective description of the environment can be very effective in a story—I recommend John Steinbeck’s The Pearl for an excellent example of this—but Noyes is not writing a long story, but a shorter poem, and wishes to generate his mood in a single stanza instead of across several chapters.)

Metaphor is also more powerful than simile. He could have said that the moon was like a ship tossed upon the clouds, and the road was like a ribbon of moonlight; but the simile will only describe, where Noyes wants to invoke. Specifically, he is invoking the reader’s feelings about darkness and ghosts, appealing to what C.S. Lewis refers to as “stock responses” to get us to partner with him in creating the mood.

Now, modern poets often avoid stock responses, looking to instead create novel and interesting mental pictures. And there may be merit in that, sometimes; but there are also negative consequences—for example, a novel image may do more to distract the reader than engage them. Every choice the poet makes is a matter of trade-offs: this word or phrases has such-and-such benefits (and drawbacks), versus alternative benefits (and drawbacks) represented by another phrase.

For “torrent of darkness,” we have the benefits of invoking trouble, and the drawback of incongruity (darkness does not exactly move, and it is a poetic stretch to think of it as a torrent). Here the poet decides (and I agree) that the benefits of “torrent” outweigh the drawbacks.

Another choice regarding trade-offs involves alliteration. Alliteration can be pleasant, but too much might be either distracting, or require the forcing of words less ideal to the subject matter. But here, “galleon” is a great word to follow “ghostly” than the alternatives of ship, frigate, etc.. And in a later verse, the alliteration in “over the cobbles he clattered, and clashed in the dark inn-yard” is also effective at sustaining the story without requiring gratuitous use of /k/ words.

One of my favorite word choices in this poem occurs in the fourth stanza, where Tim the ostler spies on the meeting between the highwayman and Bess. At the end of that stanza, Noyes writes “and he heard the robber say:” Robber! While in the rest of the poem, its “highwayman.” Why does he do that? Well, a highwayman is a robber, specifically one who robs carriages on the road between villages—but “highwayman” has a much more romantic ring to it, suggesting daring and danger, while “robber” is a course word, more invoking the image of one man taking something from another by force. Which of course the highwayman does. So when Tim, who is also in love with Bess, sees this scoundrel, he thinks not of a romantic highwayman, but only of a low robber, who robs people not only of their money, but him of his love.

After this stanza, the robber becomes the highwayman once again. And now, soldiers appear at the inn to lay a trap for him. Now, in real life, we might well want a robber to be caught; but the poem is about the highwayman, not about the soldiers, so it wouldn’t do for Noyes to remind us of this. So he stacks the deck in the highwayman’s favor: he makes the soldiers rude to the landlord and horrible to Bess, tying her up and taunting her. Their mistreatment of her keeps our sympathies firmly on her side, rooting for her and for her lover.

In a narrative poem, the author must have storytelling skill as well as poetic skill; and that’s what the redcoats’ actions are all about.

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat and blood!

Wait a minute—“good” and “blood” don’t actually rhyme. Looks like they do, but they sound different when spoken aloud. Is this an error on Noyes part? Not at all! This is another example of a trade-off. Noyes is giving up the rhyme in exchange for using the best words for the moment. (And such a trade-off has an established pedigree: many poets past have bent the rules of rhyme in just this way, asking their readers to pretend that two words rhyme based upon their look instead of their sound. So even as Noyes “cheats” here, he is doing so within the boundaries of established writing.) In this case, I think Noyes has made an excellent decision. Now if this were a short lyric, where rhyme is more important, I might frown on this choice; but for a narrative poem, we allow more leeway, since the power of the poem comes not from lyrical perfection, but from the working together of structure and story.

Noyes devoted two stanzas to Bess reaching the trigger of the gun with her fingertip, and then two whole stanzas to the approach of the highwayman. The pacing, aided by his pattern of repetition, builds the suspense. It culminates with a wonderful word choice in “shattered.” We often say that a sudden and loud noise “shattered” the silence, so it fits that “her musket shattered the moonlight” (“moonlight being an excellent use of metonymy—one word representing another related word, in order to capture the connotation and imagery of both); but then we are immediately given the very much more real sense of the word shattered, as the bullet tears through her breast and kills her. This quick move from the poetic to the physical would be by itself enough to justify the singular structure of Noyes’ stanzas throughout.

The repetitive element of Noyes’ stanzas again becomes powerful when the highwayman recklessly charges back two stanzas later:

.     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 the bunch of lace at his throat.

My first response to that stanza was huh?!? The idiot got himself killed anyway?? He made his beloved’s death to be all in vain?? Yes. Yes, he did. And it is a triumph of Noyes’ stanzas that I reacted with such surprise, for the highwayman’s abrupt end was preceded by three lines of flowing, building, hexameter. Those shorter lines put the brakes on the development, supporting the suddenness of the highwayman’s demise.

Alfred Noyes certainly knew what he was doing as he combined elements of form (meter and stanzaic structure) and content (word choice and narrative development). I think whether we are poets or storytellers, we can benefit from thinking about his example.


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.


4 responses

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

  2. […] Don’t miss this other post about the artistry behind The Highwayman! […]

  3. This was very useful to me. Thank you!

    One thought I had when found the apparent slant rhyme good/blood is that in some English and Welsh dialects they are true rhymes. I don’t know enough about how Noyes spoke and the influence his English and Welsh upbringing to say if this was a true rhyme or not, but it might well be.

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