Words for Wednesday

Re-reading Martin Shaw’s Scatterings, I was thinking this weekend about my love of poetry, and how the Druids and bards loved poetry but our modern world does not.
I believe that it was in fifth grade we all had to pick our “favorite” poem (as if we’d been exposed to even a few dozen and had any basis for selection) to read out-loud to the class.  Most people had the good sense to pick something by Frost, or Sandberg, or, for the love of the Goddess, at least Eugene Field.  But I went full-in for romanticism and chose The Highwayman.  I was ever after derided in that school as “weird.”
I think, now, with the benefit of hindsight, that what I liked was the heroism of the landlord’s daughter, the anti-establishment attitude of her lover, the brave idea of defeating King George’s troops and their sniggering sexism.   Today, if forced to choose, I’d be far more likely to pick Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

Damn.  I’ll never escape romanticism; will I?

What was your first favorite poem?
The Highwayman
~Alfred Noyes
Part One
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.   The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door. He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,   A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin. They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.   And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,          His pistol butts a-twinkle, His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky. Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard. He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.   He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there   But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair. And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.   His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,   But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter. Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say— “One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night, But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light; Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,   Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight, I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.” He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand, But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;   And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,          (
O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!) Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.
Part Two
He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;   And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,   When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,   A red-coat troop came marching—  Marching—marching— King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door. They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.   But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed. Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!   There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window; For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride. They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest. They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast! “Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say— Look for me by moonlight;
Watch for me by moonlight; I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way! She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good! She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!   They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,          Cold, on the stroke of midnight, The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers! The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.   Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.   She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;   For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight; And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain. Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;   Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear? Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill, The highwayman came riding—          Riding—riding— The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still. Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!   Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light. Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,   Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight, Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death. He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood   Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!   Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey 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. 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 was 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. .       .       .
And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees, When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,   When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   A highwayman comes riding—   Riding—riding— A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door. Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard. He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.   He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there   But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
I memorized the whole thing.

11 responses to “Words for Wednesday

  1. The Highwayman made me weep the first time I heard it, years ago and it does every time I hear Loreena sing it. Always.

  2. OMGs, I’m not the only romantic fool! I, too, memorized this entire poem; then was stage-frighten into silence at age 15. My teacher had me stay after, and I recited perfectly – after that I never had stage fright again!

  3. My mother used to recite this poem to me, and also Poe’s Raven, which she has by rote along with many others. I learned many short poems that way also, but the first I truly loved was one of Browning’s,

    Who has seen the wind?
    Neither you nor I,
    But when the leaves hang trembling
    The wind is passing by.

    Wo has seen the wind?
    Neither I nor you,
    But when the trees bow down their heads
    The wind is passing through.

  4. indifferent children

    Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” reminds me of a few of the poems from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali”:

    On the day when death will knock at thy door what wilt thou offer to him?

    Oh, I will set before my guest the full vessel of my life—I will never let him go with empty hands.

    All the sweet vintage of all my autumn days and summer nights, all the earnings and gleanings of my busy life will I place before him at the close of my days when death will knock at my door.


    O thou the last fulfilment of life, Death, my death, come and whisper to me!

    Day after day I have kept watch for thee; for thee have I borne the joys and pangs of life.

    All that I am, that I have, that I hope and all my love have ever flowed towards thee in depth of secrecy. One final glance from thine eyes and my life will be ever thine own.

    The flowers have been woven and the garland is ready for the bridegroom. After the wedding the bride shall leave her home and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.

  5. “The Highwayman” rides through my memory on the tune Phil Ochs set it to.

  6. I have always loved The Highwayman, as well. But my favorite poem is Francis Ledwidge’s A Little Boy in the Morning. Even though it is about loss, it informs my journey parenting an autistic child, waiting at that gate.

    He will not come, and still I wait.
    He whistles at another gate
    Where angels listen. Ah I know
    He will not come, yet if I go
    How shall I know he did not pass
    barefooted in the flowery grass?

    The moon leans on one silver horn
    Above the silhouettes of morn,
    And from their nest-sills finches whistle
    Or stooping pluck the downy thistle.
    How is the morn so gay and fair
    Without his whistling in its air?
    The world is calling, I must go.
    How shall I know he did not pass
    Barefooted in the shining grass?

  7. Listen to Lorena McKennet’s song, The Highwayman. Haunting.

  8. One of my favs …. plus The Flea of course!

    Also the poems (songs) from LOTR.

  9. LOVE The Highwayman for Halloween – one of the best of the ghost stories …..poems and songs …..

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