What does the poem ‘The Highwayman’ mean?

What does the poem ‘The Highwayman’ mean?

Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’ is a narrative epic that explores the themes of love, loss, and sacrifice. It has been immensely popular ever since its publication due to the universality of its themes. It details the meeting, death, and eventual reunion of a highwayman and an inn keeper’s daughter named Bess.

Meaning Of The Poem ‘The Highwayman’ 

  • There are two parts to the poem ‘The Highwayman’.
  • Part one details the arrival of the Highwayman as well as his meeting with the landlord’s daughter, Bess. A thief by trade, he plans to steal gold the same night. He resolves to return to Bess at the earliest, promising that only death would stop him. 
  • The second part details the untimely death of the two lovers. King George’s men arrive at the inn, in a bid to capture the highway. When Bess is captured at gunpoint, she does not lose faith. She manages to make contact with the trigger of the captor’s guns through sheer determination and will. 
  • Fearing the return of the highwayman and his inevitable demise, Bess takes matters into her own hands. She shoots herself in the heart so as to alert him of the threat to his life. 
  • The highwayman, on hearing the sound of a gunshot rushes to the inn. On seeing Bess’ corpse he is wracked by grief and charges at the kingsmen, meeting an untimely death. 
  • The epilogue implies the two are reunited in death, their souls intertwined for eternity, after being cruelly separated in life. 
  • Noyes makes use of several literary devices like metaphor, imagery, onomatopoeia, and repetition to explore the core themes of love, loss, and sacrifice.

Detailed Summary

Part 1

  • The highwayman arrived in town on a dark and windy night. 
  • He is dressed in a coat of claret velvet, breeches made of brown doeskin, a French hat angled on his forehead, lace ruffles at the base of his chain, and tall boots which fit perfectly without a wrinkle. The word ‘twinkle’ is used to describe his pistol, rapier, and general demeanor. 
  • He rode up to the inn and proceeded into the dark inn-yard.  He knocked on the shutters but was met with silence as they were locked and barred. 
  • As he whistled a tune to himself, he caught the attention of Bess, the landlord’s daughter, who was in the middle of plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
  • Noyes introduces the third character of the poem, Tim the ostler, who is described in stark contrast to the highwayman. The ostler too loved the landlord’s daughter and attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation between her and the highwayman. 
  • The highwayman informed Bess of his plan to steal gold later at night. He promised to return to her, come what may. He kissed her goodbye and rode off into the West. 

Part 2

  • The Highwayman did not return at noon or at night. Instead, Bess was greeted by King George’s men who marched up to the inn. 
  • They captured her and then tied her to the foot of her bed at gunpoint in the hopes that the highwayman would return for her. 
  • While Bess could not get rid of her restraints, she managed to make contact with the trigger of the gun. 
  • She eventually heard the tell-tale sound of the highwayman’s horse. Bess pressed the trigger in an attempt to warn him with the sound of her death. 
  • The highwayman charged to the inn unaware that the king’s men were waiting for him. Driven mad by grief he charged at the waiting men brandishing his rapier, after which they shot him down on the highway.  
  • The two were eventually reunited in death and their souls were intertwined forever. 


  • The poem revolves around the three core themes of love, loss, and sacrifice. 
  • Upon falling in love with Bess, the highwayman promises to return to her before sunrise. In case the authorities were to catch hold of him and chase him through the day, he would return to her by moonlight. The highwayman resolves to return to her safely at any cost, even if he has to overcome hell to get to her, symbolizing his devotion to her. 
  • Later in the poem, Bess manages to press the trigger of the gun pointed at her. Even though her life was in danger, she sacrificed herself to save the life of the highwayman. 
  • The grief-struck highwayman, in complete disregard for his own life, attempts to approach Bess and is shot down.
  • As the poem comes to a close, the lovers are reunited. Their reunion is emblematic of their undying devotion to each other. 

Figures of Speech

The poet employs the following figures of speech in the poem:

  • Imagery – The use of figurative or visually descriptive language in literary works. 

Eg: The wind is described as a torrent of darkness by the poet.

  • Enjambment – When a sentence runs over to the next line without the use of punctuation 

Eg: Lines 19 and 20 of the poem are not separated by terminal punctuation.

  • Repetition – When a certain word or phrase is repeated throughout the composition 

Eg: The phrase the highwayman was riding, as used in lines 3 and 4, has been repeated throughout the poem.

  • Metaphor – A metaphor is a comparison between objects that are quite different. 

Eg: The road has been described as a ribbon of moonlight visible over the purple moor.

  • Onamatoepia – The description of sound through words. 

Eg: “tlot – tlot” is used to describe the movement of horses’ hooves.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?

AABCCB is the rhyme scheme of the poem. 

  1. How did the kingsmen know that the highwayman would return to the inn?

The highwayman was betrayed by Tim the ostler. Tim envied the highwayman as he too was in love with Bess and betrayed them in a fit of jealousy. 

  1. Why is the poem ‘The Highwayman’ divided into two parts?

Both parts of the poem have strikingly different tones. The first part is optimistic in describing the meeting of the two lovers and their hopeful farewell. The second part of the poem is melancholic as it describes the tragic death of Bess and the highwayman at the behest of King George’s men. 

What does the poem ‘The Highwayman’ mean?

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