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Even though it was written at the beginning of the twentieth century, "The Highwayman" looks backward more than forward. It isn't trying to be a poem for the dawn of a new century. Alfred Noyes doesn't experiment with new styles or tackle new subjects. Instead, he works with the forms and the themes that had been used by great nineteenth-century poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson. In particular, the story of a highway robber and his lady-love draws on old English folk songs and tales. Noyes was purposefully giving his readers a taste of an England that was already long gone by 1906.
This was one of his early poems, but Noyes spent his whole career writing and supporting more traditional, conservative poetry. He wasn't a big fan of the modern authors of his time, and particularly hated the work of experimental writers like James Joyce.
Shmoop doesn't bring all this up in order to take sides. We think there's room for all styles, the old and the new. We love the dense, complicated stuff, and the accessible, fun stuff too. We don't think any kind of writer, whether experimental or more traditional, has a monopoly on great poems. What's more, we think Noyes wrote a pretty great poem. If his goal was to make poetry that lots of people would read and love, he definitely succeeded. This poem has tons of fans, and for good reason – it's definitely worth getting to know.
From the time we're little tiny kids, we hear stories about cops and robbers. If you ever watched a movie or read a book about Robin Hood, you basically know the set-up for "The Highwayman." We all know we're supposed to be good and follow the rules, but all secretly love to root for an outlaw, especially one who's standing up to evil. This poem is another version of that old story, but it's all wrapped up in a short, exciting package.
Noyes believed in making poetry that was accessible, gripping, and memorable. In our opinion, he did a pretty good job with "The Highwayman." Not only does he tell a riveting story, filled with action and blood and betrayal, but he also weaves it all into a great love plot. This isn't murky, dusty old poetry. It's a lot more like a summer blockbuster, with likable characters, great images, and a whole range of scenes from action to romance. In other words, this is a fast, fun poem with a little something for everyone.
Short Bio of Noyes
Here's a quick look at the life of Alfred Noyes.
Eager for More Noyes?
This site includes links to other poems by Noyes.
Phil Ochs Sings the Poem on TV
The song set to music and performed in the late '60s. Maybe it hasn't aged all that well, but we still like it.
"The Highwayman" by the Highwaymen
This is a song by country music legends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. It's not based on this poem at all, but it's a great song, and it's definitely in the same spirit as the Noyes poem, a ballad about being a tough-as-nails outlaw.
Noyes Reads the Poem
The man himself reading the poem, with some creepy animation to make it look like live video. Ever seen the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland? It's a little like that.
Loreena McKennitt sings "The Highwayman"
This is a version of the poem sung by Celtic music superstar Loreena McKennitt.
A Reading of the Poem
This guy really hams it up – it's fun, give it a listen.
This is another dramatic reading, found on LoudLit.org.
Whiskey in the Jar
A great old Irish tune about a highwayman – no relation to this poem. This robber's girlfriend is less cool than Bess, but the song is great.
Photo of Noyes at Age 60
This one was taken quite a while after he wrote "The Highwayman."
Spooky Illustration from the Poem
We kind of like this image of the highwayman out on the road in the moonlight.