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"The Highwayman" is a narrative poem written by Alfred Noyes, first published in the August 1906 issue of Blackwood's Magazine, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. The following year it was included in Noyes' collection, Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems, becoming an immediate success. In 1995 it was voted 15th in the BBC's poll for "The Nation's Favourite Poems".
The poem, set in 18th century rural England, tells the story of an unnamed highwayman who is in love with Bess, a landlord's (innkeeper) daughter. Betrayed to the authorities by Tim, a jealous ostler (stableman), the highwayman escapes ambush when Bess sacrifices her life to warn him. Learning of her death he dies in a futile attempt at revenge, shot down on the highway. In the final stanza, the ghosts of the lovers meet again on winter nights.
The poem was written on the edge of a desolate stretch of land in West Surrey known as Bagshot Heath, where Noyes, then aged 24, had taken rooms in a cottage. In his autobiography, he Bagshot Heath in those days was a wild bit of country, all heather and pinewoods. "The Highwayman" suggested itself to me one blustery night when the sound of the wind in the pines gave me the first line." The poem was completed in about two days.
The poem makes effective use of vivid imagery for the background and of repetitious phrases to create the sense of a horseman riding at ease through the rural darkness to a lovers' tryst or of soldiers marching down the same road to ambush him.
"The Highwayman" is reputed to be "the best narrative poem in existence for oral delivery."
Almost half a century later, Noyes wrote, "I think the success of the poem... was because it was not an artificial composition, but was written at an age when I was genuinely excited by that kind of romantic story."
The poem was adapted as a cantata for mixed voices and orchestra by American composer Deems Taylor in 1914, first performed at the McDowell Festival, Peterborough, N.H., with E.G. Hood as director, and the baritone Reinald Weathermen, as soloist.
In 1951, the poem was used as the basis for a feature-length Hollywood film of the same name, starring Philip Friend and Wanda Hendrix. Noyes writes in his autobiography that he was pleasantly surprised by "the fact that in this picture, produced in Hollywood, the poem itself is used and followed with the most artistic care".
In 1981, Oxford University Press published an edition of the poem illustrated by Charles Keeping in black and white. He won the annual Kate Greenaway Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book illustration by a British subject.
In 2000, Andy Irvine released an adaptation of McKennitt's song on his album Way Out Yonder.
In 2002, the American author Deborah Ballou published The Highwayman: A Novel Inspired by Alfred Noyes' Poem.
The Scottish children's author Nicola Morgan used the poem as the background for her historical novels, The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse, published by Walker Books in 2006 and 2007. Of the former, Morgan wrote, "Noyes' poem informs my book so overtly, so deeply, that I needed permission to use it."
L.A. Meyer’s 2011 historical fiction novel The Mark of the Golden Dragon draws quite heavily upon this poem as inspiration for a major subplot.
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