Monday, April 4, 2011

National Poetry Month: The Highwayman

It's National Poetry Month and I wanted to do something special to celebrate on the blog. I suggested to Jasie we should each pick a handful of poems that mean something to us, but she seemed less than enthused about the idea. When I questioned her, I learned she didn't have any poems that held special significance to her. I already had a list of a half dozen in my head, I figured everybody would have a similar, if smaller, list. Now I've reevaluated my assumption, I think everybody should have at least one poem that speaks to them, that inspires or challenges them. It doesn't have to be Important Literature. Poetry can be fun, too. The first poem on my list may not have an literary value whatsoever, but it's near and dear to my heart.

When we were wee lasses, we had a collection of poetry and songs for children. I wish I still had that book. I can't even remember what it's called, which thwarts my efforts to find it again. It was a thick volume, though, and in all the nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and songs, there's one poem that stands out in my mind (that might be because Jasie and I read to each other so many times that I still have parts of it memorized): The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.

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—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

When I look at this verse with my educated eyes, I can tell it's not that great. There's probably a reason I never studied this poem in school. But I don't care, because this opening verse still gives me a small shiver of anticipation. Read it out loud, if you can, and feel the words tripping off the tip of your tongue. I also love the imagery of the "torrent of darkness" and the moon being a "ghostly galleon."

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And 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.

Who doesn't love a good, doomed romance? There were illustrations in the version we had, and Bess, the landlord's daughter, leaned out the window, looking down on her highwayman with sultry eyes, as he stretched up to kiss her hair. The illustrations perfectly reflected the dark, Romantic spirit of the poem, and I think it's one of the things that really caught my attention as a child. But it was the rhythm, the movement of the language, the moody imagery, that held my attention and brought me back again and again.

He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i' 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,
(Oh, sweet, black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonliglt, and galloped away to the West.

If you aren't familiar with the poem and you want to see what happens to the Highwayman and his black-eyed lover, take the time to read it now in honor of National Poetry Month.

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