Study Guide

The Highwayman Appearances

By Alfred Noyes

Appearances

He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin, (line 7)

The highwayman is meant to cut a pretty dashing figure. His clothes are the first thing that let us know he's a stud. Think of him like a sharp-dressed gangster, a gunman in an expensive suit. Whatever you think about the way he makes a living, you can't help but think he's kind of cool. In this poem, it's pretty safe to judge a book by its cover.

But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,

Bess is as beautiful as the highwayman is well-dressed and cool. They make a great pair. Since the poem doesn't have time to show us how compatible they are, appearances make a great shortcut. We don't learn a lot about Bess, but it's important that she's so dark (dark hair, dark eyes, etc.). That rhymes nicely with all the other dark moments in the "The Highwayman" (like in line 1) and it generally fits with the moody intensity of the poem.

Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked; His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like moldy hay, (line 20-21)

This is a really awesome two-line portrait. We've heard all this stuff about how sleek and beautiful Bess and the highwayman are. Now we get this – a ruffled, pale-faced, sickly-looking, crazy-looking guy. He's almost melting into the hay of the stables. This description is also sort of sad and brutal, and it tells us all we need to know about Tim's love for Bess. It ain't gonna happen. We know by their appearances that Noyes thinks she's way out of his league.

The landlord's red-lipped daughter, (line 23)

This little extra description of Bess is just a reminder of how beautiful she is. Coming right after the lines about Tim, this contrasts her sexiness with his frightening oddness. The narrator never comes out and says that Tim ratted the highwayman out to the soldiers, but we think it's the only explanation. Why else would Tim be there? The difference in the two men's appearance adds the first bit of tension to the poem. You can see how this love triangle would be explosive, how Tim's bitterness would cause him to do something crazy.

As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast; (line 35)

More material about how attractive Bess is. This is all done for a good reason. If we feel the connection (both physical and emotional) between these two, it makes the tragic ending all the more difficult and intense. The speaker uses appearances, and the idea of these beautiful young lovers, to make us feel more invested in the plot of the poem.

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