’Twas the night before Halloween and what should be stirring but the ghost of the Highwayman.
The poem by Alfred Noyes—who, I just learned, taught at Princeton and taught the works of Joyce, among other things—was one of the earliest poems I remember hearing, along with poems by Poe and Frost. Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” first published in 1958, became one of those “textbook” poems—How is the road like a ribbon? How does the poem’s rhythm imitate the sound of the horses’ hoofs?—but it also was a very gripping narrative told in what we today generally call “cinematic” terms. Which means it has a very telling way with details, with “close-ups”—as on Bess’ finger on that trigger, and that lace at the throat of the fallen anti-hero. And, yes, he is an antihero. We know he’s a criminal but we still want him to keep his rendezvous with Bess, the landlord’s daughter, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter. What’s more, though Noyes is British and his setting is Britain, I, as a kid, always assumed it was an American poem (keeping company with Poe and Frost) and so, “King George’s men” were the enemy anyway. I took it to be a pre-Revolutionary War setting and so, even though the Highwayman is no Paul Revere, still, we aren’t on the sides of those sniggering, jesting, uncouth, sexist soldiers.
Several years after encountering the poem in school, I encountered Phil Ochs’ recording of the poem, which he set to music. Now, Ochs was truly a “protest” or topical singer in the era of the folksong critique of the powers that be, much more than Dylan was. For Ochs, it was a calling he was quite serious about. But, for that very reason, I didn’t listen to him much. Unlike Dylan’s electric screeds about the Great Society, Ochs was still in that romantic brigade that Dylan distanced himself from with “My Back Pages,” in 1964. “Romantic” in the sense of thinking that singing songs was going to rally the forces of change. Sure, it must’ve been great in those heady days when “We Shall Overcome” seemed to be working but . . . seems to have taken a tremendously long time, hasn’t it? Ochs could be sardonic and that helped keep him from seeming overly earnest but in the late Seventies when I was discovering all this stuff I wasn’t much in the mood for listening to someone fighting those battles on disk. Ochs had died in 1975, and that was that.
Except for his song of “The Highwayman.” That still moved me. Mostly because of how courtly his song is, and what’s more, if you examine the actual poem and then listen to his song, you’ll see that all his edits are quite judicious. His song improves the poem. And he does it by leaving out extraneous bits—like that ostler who betrays the Highwayman out of jealousy of Bess’s love for him, and the extra verses to exploit Bess’s predicament. In Ochs’ version it’s enough to see her trussed up there and know that she’s listening for her lover to come and then hears him before they do and ends her life to warn him, or, as the great line has it: “and warned him with her death.”
And Ochs’ delivery gets the most out of what is my favorite verse in the whole thing: “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 in the golden noon, wine-red 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 a bunch of lace at his throat.” As poem, that’s pretty good. As sung, it’s devastatingly good. Here he is singing it on TV.
Noyes also repeats two verses at the end—after “still on a winter’s night, they say”—so that we get the Highwayman riding up to the inn, and we get Bess still plaiting that dark red loveknot into her long black hair. Ochs only gives us the first. The forlorn and bereft and betrayed Highwayman riding up to that inn forever. That’s the way revenant stories really work. The idea that they “live happily ever after” in a ghostly world that mirrors their in-life love is a bit too precious. Ochs’ version tells us that the force that drove the Highwayman back—to certain death—is what keeps his ghost alive. And that’s in the promise, that he will come by moonlight “though hell should bar the way.” So, return he must, as if she may be there, though she’s not.
About that sacrifice: it makes you a bit uneasy, those sniggering soldiers, kissing her, taunting her, placing that rifle beneath her breast, which we suppose is soft and white and vulnerable. We feel for her, of course, and Noyes makes her do what she can to save him though it costs her her life, and of course, it’s all for naught, in the sense that he will come back and be killed. “Not till the dawn had he heard it and his face grew gray to hear / How Bess the landlord’s daughter / The landlord’s black-eyed daughter / Had watched for her love in the moonlight and died in the darkness there.” That, I suppose, is why Noyes wants them both to be present at the close in a tradition of ghostly love that survives death. The colder version, though, makes it a Halloween tale, of a wraithlike haunting in search of a beauty snuffed out too soon.
Yup, safe to say this was my intro to the romantic “go no more a-roving” vein of British poetry, though Noyes is aiming to be more Tennysonian than Byronian, I’d say. In any case, Ochs does that tradition proud, resurrecting it, like those “romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep somehow,” that Dylan speaks of, as a romantic vision of the eternal outlaw, riding, riding, riding, to go with the romantic dissident marching, marching, marching in protest. If this post were simply in tribute to Ochs, I would've posted about his song “Changes,” probably his best lyric, and also very romantic, but this is for what we used to call “Mischief Night,” and in my memory/imagination of that night, the wind is always “a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees” and the moon “a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.”