Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems by Alfred Noyes

Source of book: I own this. 


There are a few poets for whom a single poem comes to define them, whether deservedly or not. I think for most of us, at least of my own generation, Alfred Noyes IS “The Highwayman.” This was the only one of his poems in my high school curriculum. But even before that, I knew it at least a little because of Anne of Green Gables. Like “The Lady of Shalott,” the poem is central to the plot, even though the entire poem is never quoted. 


It is difficult to think of a finer example of Victorian melodrama than “The Highwayman.” The dashing - and criminal - young man, the lovesick young woman, the plot to capture the robber, the woman used as a hostage, her sacrifice of her life for love, his death in a lovesick state. And nobody ever wrote a better one, in my opinion. 


But that is clearly not all that Noyes wrote. Not by a long shot. The book I have, I inherited from a legal colleague, and it is only volume one of the collected Noyes, part of a set printed in 1913. (It has a written inscription from 1914, presumably representing the original gift of the book over 100 years ago. It also contains a few fossilized insects goodness only knows how old between some of the pages.) I chose this particular collection within the book because it contained “The Highwayman;” I figured it was a good place to start. 


I didn’t have much of an idea what to expect. Would it be mostly poems with pathos and people dead of or for love? (Answer: yes, there is a whole section about dead lovers.) Would it feel of its time? (Answer: in some places, yes, others no.) Is “The Highwayman” the only good poem he wrote? (Answer: definitely not. There are a number of excellent ones in this collection.) 


I figure I can start with the best-known poem, then move on to discuss some others, and the way that the collection appears to be organized. 


The Highwayman




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.


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.




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—


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—


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—


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. 


The poem speaks for itself. It is a well told tale that demands to be read out loud. Like much of Noyes’ poetry, it flows off the tongue smoothly and with a forward motion, propelling the story along much like a ballad (although this one isn’t in ballad stanza.) 


The collection opens with the titular poem, followed by a handful of poems about war generally. It was hard to know what to make of them, because there seemed to be two competing ideas. The first was one that hasn’t aged well at all: the idea that the British Empire was largely synonymous with Christianity, and the work of colonization and world domination a religious act of goodness. Ugh. Some poems, like “Nelson’s Year,” commemorating Trafalgar, are filled with this tripe, and were painful to read at best. 


But the flip side was unexpected: Noyes hated war, and wrote surprisingly anti-war poems as well. And some of these were very anti-colonialist. It is difficult to figure out how he wrote both such jingoism and its very opposite. And often, both ideas are contained in the same poem. The best of these, I think is this one:


The Empire Builders


Who are the Empire-builders ? They

Whose desperate arrogance demands

A self-reflecting power to sway

A hundred little selfless lands?

Lord God of battles, ere we bow

To these and to their soulless lust,

Let fall Thy thunders on us now

And strike us equal to the dust.


Before the stars in heaven were made

Our great Commander led us forth;

And now the embattled lines are laid

To East, to West, to South, to North; 

According as of old He planned

We take our station in the field,

Nor dare to dream we understand

The splendour of the swords we wield.


We know not what the Soul intends

That lives and moves behind our deeds ;

We wheel and march to glorious ends

Beyond the common soldier's needs :

And some are raised to high rewards,

And some by regiments are hurled

To die upon the opposing swords

And sleep — forgotten by the world.


And not where navies churn the foam,

Nor called to fields of fierce emprize.

In many a country cottage-home

The Empire-builder lives and dies :

Or through the roaring street he goes

A lean and weary City slave.

The conqueror of a thousand foes

Who walks, unheeded, to his grave.


Leaders unknown of hopes forlorn

Go past us in the daily mart.

With many a shadowy crown of thorn

And many a kingly broken heart:

Though England's banner overhead

Ever the secret signal flew,

We only see its Cross is red

As children see the skies are blue.


For all are Empire-builders here,

Whose hearts are true to heaven and home

And, year by slow revolving year,

Fulfill the duties as they come;

So simple seems the task, and yet

Many for this are crucified;

Ay, and their brother-men forget

The simple wounds in palm and side.


But he that to his home is true.

Where'er the tides of power may flow,

Has built a kingdom great and new

Which Time nor Fate shall overthrow;

These are the Empire-builders, these

Annex where none shall say them nay

Beyond the world's uncharted seas,

Realms that can never pass away.


There is something to the idea that the strength of any nation isn’t its army, but the people themselves. The strength is found in the strength of societal bonds, and in mutual love and affection, and in the everyday goodness of those who quietly make the world a better place. This is why a nation crumbles, too. 


Of the fully anti-war poems, I thought that “In Time of War” was good. It is too long to quote, but this stanza really hit home:


The laugh is Death’s; he laughs as erst o’er hours that England cherished,

“Count up, count up the stricken homes that wail the firstborn son,

Count by your starved nad fatherless the tale of what hath perished;

Then gather with your foes and ask if you - or I - have won.”


The next section begins to shift toward the theme of love, with plenty of tragedy mixed in. This poem stood out to me. 


In Cloak of Grey




Love's a pilgrim, cloaked in grey,

And his feet are pierced and bleeding:

Have ye seen him pass this way

Sorrowfully pleading?

Ye that weep the world away,

Have ye seen King Love to-day?--




Yea, we saw him; but he came

Poppy-crowned and white of limb!

Song had touched his lips with flame,

And his eyes were drowsed and dim;

And we kissed the hours away

Till night grew rosier than the day.--




Hath he left you?--Yea, he left us

A little while ago,

Of his laughter quite bereft us

And his limbs of snow;

We know not why he went away

Who ruled our revels yesterday.--




Because ye did not understand

Love cometh from afar,

A pilgrim out of Holy Land

Guided by a star:

Last night he came in cloak of grey,

Begging. Ye knew him not: he went his way.


Following “The Highwayman,” there are several poems about lost love. Love lost usually because the beloved has died. A very Victorian sentiment. Well written poems, but a bit out of style. These tend to be a bit longer, and tell stories. Here is the opening of “The Haunted Palace,” as a representative of the type. 


Come to the haunted palace of my dreams,

    My crumbling palace by the eternal sea,

Which, like a childless mother, still must croon

Her ancient sorrows to the cold white moon,

    Or, ebbing tremulously,

With one pale arm, where the long foam-fringe gleams,

    Will gather her rustling garments, for a space

    Of muffled weeping, round her dim white face. 


Following these poems are several re-tellings of tragic episodes from ancient mythology. There is, naturally, one about Orpheus and Euridyce. (Hey, there is a great modern re-telling of that too!) Another is about the giant Enceladus and his ill-fated fight with Athena (nobody ever wins that one.) At least he got a moon named after him. Another moon-namesake, Niobe, gets her own poem. The last stanza of that captures her iconic status as the archetype of the bereaved mother. 


Ah, yet, her woman’s love, so vast, so tender;

    Her woman’s body, hurt by every dart;

Braving the thunder, still, still hide the slender

    Soft frightened child beneath her mighty heart.

She is all one mute immortal cry, one brief

    Infinite pang of such victorious pain

        That she transcends the heavens and bows them down!

            The majesty of grief

    Is hers, and her dominion must remain

        Eternal.   God nor man usurps that crown. 


That latter part of the book is a mix of various genres, from a nostalgic look back at Oxford, to an imagined rallying cry of the Roundheads. This final poem was one I thought was good. 


In the Cool of the Evening


In the cool of the evening, when the low sweet whispers waken,

When the laborers turn them homeward, and the weary have their will,

When the censers of the roses o'er the forest aisles are shaken,

Is it but the wind that cometh o'er the far green hill?


For they say 'tis but the sunset winds that wander through the heather,

Rustle all the meadow-grass and bend the dewy fern;

They say 'tis but the winds that bow the reeds in prayer together,

And fill the shaken pools with fire along the shadowy burn.


In the beauty of the twilight, in the Garden that He loveth,

They have veiled His lovely vesture with the darkness of a name!

Through His Garden, through His Garden, it is but the wind that moveth,

No more!  But O the miracle, the miracle is the same.


In the cool of the evening, when the sky is an old story,

Slowly dying, but remembered, ay, and loved with passion still . . .

Hush! . . . the fringes of His garment, in the fading golden glory

Softly rustling as He cometh o'er the far green hill.


Definitely some interesting and moving poems. Noyes was a bit complex in his views, still a bit Victorian, but starting to become disillusioned with war and Empire. This collection is early in his career, before the two world wars, so much of his later poetry isn’t in there. Apparently, he opposed the Boer War, but supported England in both world wars, because her existence was threatened. (He never served, as his eyesight was bad enough to disqualify him.) I may have to look for some of his later works as well. 


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