A Darker Keeping: The Highwayman

Illustrator Charles Keeping had a dark side, always just beneath the surface of his work. Compare the work he did in “Joseph’s Yard” with “The Highwayman”, the famous poem by Alfred Noyes. The Highwayman is a satisfyingly Gothic love story of a highwayman and “Bess the landlords red lipped daughter”. You can read (or listen to) the poem here. The poem has a urgent rhythm that drives it along – its the kind of poem you feel compelled to read out loud:

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—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

The illustrations have a much darker vision, closer to the work he did on “The Golden Shadow” and “The God Beneath The Sea“. He works with dark brown ink, almost black, scrawled and splattered on the page. I love the way he draws horses. Apparently he grew up next door to London’s cart horse stables and spent hours watching the horses through the fence. Its shows. And here is the highwayman himself:

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 jeweled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

The highway man rides to meet his love – the landlords “black eyed daughter” plaiting a dark red love knot in her long black hair:

He tells her that he is after a prize tonight and that he will be back “though hell should bar the way”. But they are betrayed by Tim the osler, who is secretly in love with Bess. A crowd of soldiers arrive at the Inn and set up an ambush:

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 her casement, the road that
he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had 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!”

I suppose they tied her up with that musket beneath her breast to intimidate her? I am not sure. In any case, Bess realises that this is her one chance to warn her lover. She writhes in her bonds until at last:

Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at last was hers!

After many long hours she hears the sound of horses hooves drawing near and she realises that the highwayman has returned:

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, straight and still!

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.

The sound of the shot warns her lover, and he escapes, not realising what the sound meant. But later when he hears the story of how Bess had sacrificed her life to warn him, he goes mad with grief:

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 the bunch of lace at his throat.

The last two verses tells a ghost story. The first two verses are repeate and the ghostly lovers meet again. And the illustrations are repeated as well, but inverted:

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—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
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.

And on the back cover of the book, the lover’s embrace:

Highway Man's Kiss
Death in Moonlight

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andie
    May 27, 2008 @ 16:42:06

    One of my favourite poems too!

  2. dave
    Aug 30, 2008 @ 19:53:25

    Have loved this poem from the age of thirteen

  3. masha
    Aug 30, 2008 @ 19:59:36

    Thanks for visiting
    I also got to know that poem when I was around that age – love it – its so satisfyingly gothic.

  4. Hena
    Nov 12, 2008 @ 22:24:39

    who is this by? like the pictures were drawn by…?

  5. masha
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 15:40:12

    Charles Keeping did the illustrations

  6. kirsty
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 04:37:06

    your pictures helped me with my school project

  7. masha
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 05:15:34

    @ Kirsty – thats cool! Glad I could help

  8. Anurag
    Jan 08, 2009 @ 21:13:57

    Wow! surreal and stunning indeed!

    Thanks for the post on the blog 🙂

  9. Mary N.
    Apr 19, 2009 @ 03:15:41

    I first read about this poem in a book called Look for Me by Moonlight the poem is much better than that book though it’s awesome I love the images they’re kind of creepy though

  10. ru
    Apr 24, 2009 @ 22:44:10

    I first read this at school strangely at the age of 10. The image of the dead landlord’s daughter stuck with me. The poem is harrowing yet beautiful at the same time. It is well accompanied by shocking but wonderful illustrations. It definately made a lasting imperssion on me.

  11. mashadutoit
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 11:36:01

    @ ru – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on The Higwayman –
    I also read it first at around that age. I loved the midnight imagery, and the futility of it all. So gothic!

  12. samantha
    Nov 07, 2009 @ 15:36:52

    this story is the best but we need more pichers thanks 4 reading my comment 🙂

  13. samantha
    Nov 07, 2009 @ 15:39:50

    and my school read it to us im in year 8 i would like a boyfriend plz i go to nsg.:-) thanks.

  14. bob
    Feb 10, 2010 @ 03:20:06

    helped with school project thnx
    we had 2 draw pics of highway man

  15. mashadutoit
    Feb 10, 2010 @ 09:05:38

    I’m glad I could help. Sounds like a fun project.


  16. Rengenx
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 16:34:23

    “Сделано на совесть, значит на века” – респект. А эт слова центра)))

  17. i dont like to give my name away
    Mar 22, 2010 @ 07:16:27


  18. mrmorodo
    Apr 22, 2010 @ 22:25:39

    This is a favourite in our family…the illustrations are wonderful. I think the ‘Close up of her face’ and ‘after being shot’ pictures look like japanese manga artwork.

  19. mashadutoit
    Apr 23, 2010 @ 08:05:53

    gareth – I never thought about it that way, but I do see it now. 🙂

  20. Harriet
    May 07, 2010 @ 23:50:52

    I remember being about 5 when I picked this up. I read it everyday and everyday I understood it a bit better. The last time I read it was when I was 8. Now I am 15 and want to read it again and actaully buy the book because I now know who illustrated it!

    Google is more useful than librarians! XD

  21. mashadutoit
    May 08, 2010 @ 11:11:39

    Hi Harriet –

    I loved this poem since I was very young, but only discovered this book when I was – I must have been about…20? It is a special book – glad you enjoy it.

    Masha du Toit Contact Me [image: Google][image: WordPress]

  22. bell12
    Jun 23, 2010 @ 19:13:41

    love it !!!!!!!! I’ve been learning about it in literacy at school I almost know it off by heart! that’s how many times I’ve read it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. mashadutoit
    Jun 23, 2010 @ 19:22:10

    Good for you! I used to know it by heart too, but not that much anymore. Thanks for the comment. 🙂


  24. vimbainashe
    May 22, 2011 @ 17:56:22

    love it !!!!!!!! I’ve been learning about it in at school I almost know it off by heart! that’s how many times I’ve read it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  25. vimbainashe
    May 22, 2011 @ 18:08:08

    i love it because it cool and sad a bit

  26. Chaz
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 02:08:10

    I love the explanitary commentry to this poem. I’ve always liked the style of writing but, until now, never fully understood it. The illustrations are wonderful and suit the poem perfectly.

  27. mashadutoit
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:28:43

    I agree 🙂 They do suit the poem. Thanks for your comment –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: