|Illustrations Copyright 1983 by Charles Mikolaycak|
Picturebook / Poetry
Alfred Noyes was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1880. Although he is most famous for his narrative poem The Highwayman, he also wrote essays, biographies, and novels. His most famous poem was first published in 1906, and in 1907, it became an instant success when it was published in Noyes' collection Forty Singing Seaman and Other Poems (BBC Wales, June 2012). It didn't take long, however, for his book to become famous around the world.
I've been teaching this poem for years because of its lyrical quality and the fact that it is filled with similes, metaphors, and other figurative language. However, I didn't realize the poem had been published in book form until I was browsing through my school library recently and stumbled upon it. I guess I didn't know about this book because I teach high school and don't normally venture into the picturebook section. As soon as I saw the book, I knew I had to read it and learn more about it.
The basic plot of the unnamed highwayman (or robber) who is in love with Bess, the landlord's daughter, is probably familiar to anyone who loves reading poetry. The poem begins with the following stanza, which is repeated at the end of the poem, and sets the tone for this tragic tale:
"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."The highwayman, described as wearing 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," visits Bess at the old-inn to declare his love for her once again. However, Tim, the jealous ostler who is also in love with Bess, overhears their conversation and reports him to King George's men. Perhaps with the highwayman out of the way, Tim would have a chance with the woman he loves. However, his misguided notion, ends in tragedy for them all.
King George's men come to inn saying no word to the landlord. They drink his ale without paying for it and gag his daughter and bind her to the foot of her bed with a gun placed beneath her breast. They plan to use her as bait to catch the highwayman, but as he approaches, Bess pulls the trigger and shatters her own breast, sacrificing her life for the man she loves. The highwayman hears the shot and flees to safety.
However, the next morning when he hears what has happened, he loses control and heads back to the inn to seek revenge. Tragically, he is shot down on the highway and dies in a pool of his own blood. In the final stanza, the reader gets the "ghostly" impression that this scene is played over and over until the end of time. The highwayman comes to the inn to declare his love for Bess, Tim betrays them, Bess takes her own life, and the highwayman is shot down on the highway.
I will definitely use this book with my students in the future when we are reading and analyzing this poem. Mikolaycak's black and white illustrations add a sense of drama to the text. Each illustration has just a touch of red to emphasize certain elements in the poem. For example, the highwayman's red mask, Bess' dark-red love knot she is plaiting in her hair, the ropes that tie her hands and feet, King George's men's red coats, and the tragic scenes where Bess shoots herself and the highwayman is shot down on the highway are painted red to contrast the cold black and white images. The use of black and white illustrations with just a touch of red are very effective in the presentation of the poem. It's interesting to note that the illustration with Tim, the ostler, spying on the highwayman and Bess declaring their love for one another is painted only in black and white. The way Mikolaycak illustrates this scene could be symbolic of the lovers' betrayal.
If you haven't read The Highwayman I highly recommend it. Also take a look at the YouTube music videos below.