Critical Analysis of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

Critical Analysis of The Highwayman

The world that Noyes creates through this poem is a world where laws do not seem to have much of a place. For one, the highwayman does not seem to be an uncommon sight. Hence robberies are pretty common, and robbers are not even especially looked down upon. Perhaps this has something to do with how Noyes himself was rather sympathetic towards robbers, even giving them a decidedly positive image in his Robin Hood. However, returning to the poem, Tim also does not seem to consider that betraying Bess and the highwayman’s secret to the patrolmen is a sort of betrayal. The patrolmen in their turn do not think it is wrong to torture a young girl. Lastly, the highwayman never considers how he might take the help of the Law to punish the patrolmen for Bess’s death, taking the onus of revenge into his own hands. This is then a world far removed from our own. Yet the poem still appeals to modern readers, for the verse is delightfully written and the romance in the poem cannot be ignored.

Poetic Devices

Rhyme scheme:

Each stanza of this poem follows the same simple rhyme scheme – AABCCB.

Rhetorical devices:

Metaphor: This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things. Noyes uses the device of metaphor when he compares the moon to a ship sailing through the clouds, which are again compared to stormy seas. Noyes also compares the narrow road to a ribbon. He makes these comparisons in the first and sixteenth stanzas.

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Simile: This rhetorical device is used when an overt comparison is made between two different things. Noyes uses this device when he says that Tim’s hair looks as rough as hay in the fourth stanza.

Synecdoche: This rhetorical device is used in many ways to represent one thing with the help of an entirely different one. Noyes uses the word “moonlight” to mean “nightfall” in his application of synecdoche in the fifth stanza, or the word “perfume” to mean “sweet-smelling hair” in the sixth stanza.

Onomatopoeia: This rhetorical device is used when a word is used to describe a sound. Noyes uses onomatopoeia when he writes the words “tlot-tlot” to describe the sound made by horses’ hooves in the twelfth and thirteenth stanzas.


Central Idea of the Poem

This poem strives to show that true love never dies. This is not the kind of love that can invoke jealousy, as it did in Tim. Jealousy, for Noyes, is a bad emotion, for it can result in such disasters as he describes. However, the kind of love that can lead one to sacrifice oneself for the sake of his or her beloved is precious, and never forgotten, no matter what its final outcome.

Themes of the Poem

Sacrifice: Noyes seems to be saying that an act of sacrifice for the sake of love is a good thing. Even though the highwayman is eventually killed, Bess’s suicide did in fact save him from the patrolmen the night he returned. It is only on the next day that the highwayman dies and then only through his own unthinking ways.

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Revenge: In the absence of lawlessness, one cannot go to the authorities for help. Then one must take revenge into one’s own hands. This is very noticeable in English literature from the early modern period, for example, in Hamlet. Revenge is also undertaken by the highwayman here for he belongs to a time before ours, when civic laws had not yet been formulated and when abetment to suicide was not a punishable offence.

Picaresque: The picaresque novel was a sub-genre of novels leading with the adventures of highwaymen and other such criminals. The word ‘picaresque’ in fact came from the Spanish word ‘picaro’ meaning thief or robber. Noyes adapts the themes of the picaresque novel into this poem.

Tone of the Poem and Conclusion

Tone of the Poem:

The predominant tones in this poem are those of adventure and suspense. However, an underlying tone of romance can also be detected upon closer inspection, and this tone should also not be ignored to come to a full appreciation of Noyes’s poetic ability.

Conclusion:

‘The Highwayman’ is old-fashioned in a number of ways, considering it was written in the twentieth century. Firstly, it harks back to the medieval style of the ballad, with its repetitive structure. It also goes back to older themes – such as the world of highwaymen and picaros, of robberies and revenge. All in all, this poem is a light read with a not-t00-preachy message. However it cannot, for that reason, not be considered an enjoyable poem.