Study Guide

The Highwayman Violence

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But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed; (line 44)

This is the first real violence we see in the poem (although we've heard about the highwayman's pistols, so we can imagine that's part of his job). There's no blood in this line, but it's still an ugly, scary moment. We know the soldiers don't have any right to treat Bess like this, but they do it anyway. These guys, the "cops," are way more violent that the robber, and we already know whose side we're on.

"Now keep good watch!" and they kissed her. (line 51)

Not all violence is physical. In this particularly icky moment, we see something that looks a little more like what we would call sexual harassment or even abuse. It's not just that these soldiers are violent, it's that they're sleazy too. The fact that they mistreat women makes them seem even lower and dirtier. This is a really good way to make us feel for Bess and the highwayman. Most people don't immediately side with the criminal, so we need a reason not just to like him, but also to hate the law.

Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him--with her death. (line 78)

This is probably the dramatic high-point in the poem. It's also a really bloody image. That word "shattered" is particularly harsh and raw. The speaker could have said that the bullet "pierced her breast," but "shattered" is so much stronger. It calls up images of heavy weight, broken bones and terrible wounds. It's the difference between a scene in a movie where someone gets shot and just falls over, vs. the same scene where you see the blood oozing out of the wound. Sorry, that was kind of gross, huh?

Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched with her own red blood. (line 80)

Another violent, strong image. Bess doesn't just sort of pass out of the poem. We're forced to look at her mangled body and her wet blood. It's almost like we zoom in, put the whole thing under a microscope. The poem needs this violence in order to work. If we don't feel Bess' death like a punch in the gut, then the whole thing sort of deflates. Oh, also, check out how the color red pops up again, like in the highwayman's coat and Bess's love-knot.

And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat. (line 90)

More blood, more death. The blood-soaked body of the highwayman echoes the corpse of Bess that we saw just ten lines earlier. They die apart, but are also united, in a sad way, by the way that they died. They both gave their lives in violent ways, but in both cases it was done for love. We think it's kind of tough to separate violence and love in this poem.

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