Who is your favourite character from English literature and why?
By Ben Gregson, Third Runner-up of the Connell Guides Essay Prize 2016
In 1904, during a flurry of creativity whilst residing at an inn on Bagshot Heath, Alfred Noyes penned a poem which transports us back to 18th Century England; where the wild countryside’s highways were ravaged by the rebellious rogues that were the highwaymen. At the centre of his narrative poem, “The Highwayman”1, is its eponymous hero, and it is he who is my favourite character in English literature. For a while I entertained the tortured soul of Frankenstein’s Monster; or the brilliant-minded genius of Sherlock Holmes, but time and time again I found myself drawn firmly back to the “Highwayman” – a character who I believe to be a shining example of chivalry, bravery, accessibility and raw human emotion – despite his fleeting appearance on the page.
I have had a personal connection to this poem and its protagonist from a young age, as my mother used to sing Phil Ochs’ version to me2. His is a haunting recording which breathes life into the words – poetry was of course always intended to be heard aloud – and fascinated me endlessly. As I matured, I began to fully appreciate the depth of Noyes’ own creation, and to consider the Highwayman not only as the subject of an exciting story, but also as a bona-fide character in his own right; one rooted firmly in myth and legend, and of a depth and complexity to challenge any other.
Noyes presents the Highwayman as an embodiment of masculinity and male chivalry. He is deeply charismatic in speech, employing imperatives and declarative statements (“look for me”; “watch for me”; “I shall be back”; “I’ll come to thee”). The verbs associated with him are also noteworthy, with strong dynamic verbs such as “tugged”, “riding”, “galloped” and “spurred” reinforcing the image of a strong, masculine figure. The Highwayman’s chivalry is shown in his presentation, as well as his relationship with Bess. We are told little about his physical appearance, save a description of his attire: sporting a “French cocked-hat”, a “wine- red...velvet coat”, and a “bunch of lace at his throat”, we see he has a distinct air of pride and confidence about him; his dressing smartly to see his lady showing a suavity in manner. His colours are also important, the red of his coat symbolic of his passionate love, and the white of the lace symbolising purity and nobility. He clearly loves Bess, speaking to her tenderly and endearingly (“my bonnie sweetheart”), and his devotion is shown through both his actions and his promises. The line “he rose upright in his stirrups, he scarce could reach her hand” sums up this chivalrous romance nicely for me. Here, the Highwayman rises politely to speak to his lady, and by reaching up to her shows he has placed himself beneath her in hopeless devotion – symbolically placing her in charge of his soul. Indeed, later on, she and only she has the power to save his life by warning him of the ambush. Furthermore, the contrast drawn between the Highwayman and Tim the Ostler (who is portrayed as squalid with “mouldy hair”, a “peaked face” and “hollows of madness” for eyes), heightens the Highwayman’s honourable demeanour and leads him to serve as an example for other men to follow.
The Highwayman’s nobility is key. Riding back to the inn after Bess’ death, knowing full well that his own awaits him, confirms the extent of his love and level of his courage, and shows him to be a truly noble man. The presence of such nobility in a man who is by all accounts a criminal, plays on not only the popularity of the anti-hero in traditional English legend (consider Robin Hood), but also the Romanticism of the legend of the highwayman. In their heyday, highwaymen, such as the notorious Dick Turpin, were widely admired as glorious heroes. They served as a symbol of liberty against the oppression of the monarchies of Kings George I, II, and III. In this poem, this oppression is manifest in the “red-coats”, who come “marching” into the inn and drive Bess to suicide before killing the Highwayman too. A contrast is also drawn between the Highwayman’s chaste courtship and romance, and the troops who, in stanza 9, shame Bess and violate her with a “kiss”. Contemporary writers help us to understand this fascination with highwaymen. Thomas de Quincey wrote that highwayman required “a bountiful endowment of qualities: strength, health, agility and excellent horsemanship”3, and Jean-Beaunard abbé le Blanc wrote that “tales of their cunning and generosity were in the mouths of everybody, and a noted thief was a kind of hero”4. De Quincey even goes as far to say that “the very noblest specimens of man were the mounted robbers who cultivated their profession on the great roads”5, and John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” was suppressed under the 1737 Licensing Act for fear it would result in too much support for highwaymen, by making hero of one6. Noyes played on the traditional popularity of highwaymen to develop a connection between his audience and his character.
Whilst this Romanticism engenders a deep sympathy amongst readers towards the Highwayman, what makes him so brilliant for me is the mad and uncontrollable passion he displays in his futile attempt at vengeance. The colour motif of “red” returns, yet this time it is a red associated with mad anger, not love. The simile in stanza 15 “like a madman”, and the verb “shrieking”, are both used to show his rage, and we see a glimpse of what this man could have been like if he were purely a villain, not an anti-hero. Describing him in death as “like a dog”, Noyes plays upon contemporary fears of atavism in a post-Darwinian world – building on the idea of the Highwayman’s animalism with the previous use of the verb “shrieking”. By associating the Highwayman with regression, Noyes accentuates his raw passion as he loses control over his previously suave demeanour, instead allowing a wholly darker force to drive him. In Freudian terms, it is a simple battle between the id and the ego, and here, triggered by grief, the id has taken over and the ego has lost, unleashing the vengeful and instinctive being beneath. This section vividly reminds me of the theme of the battle between Pietas (Reason) and Furor (Rage) in Virgil’s Aeneid – with the inevitable victory of Furor; exemplified by the tragedy of Nisus and Euryalus, and the slaughter of Turnus. This allusion, whether deliberate or accidental on Noyes’ part, only adds to heroic quality of the Highwayman.
Ultimately, it is Noyes’ poetry which makes this character so universally accessible. The alliterative and onomatopoeic language (“over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard”); the opening collection of metaphors (“the moon was a ghostly galleon”); and the iambic and anapaestic hexameter mimicking the sound of horses’ hooves (the hexameter again associates the poem with the epics of Homer and Virgil), all lend this poem a vividness which allows its character to make a greater impression.
Stylistically, the Highwayman is interesting as, whilst Alfred Noyes was a 20th century poet, he was heavily influenced by the narrative poetry of such Romantics as Tennyson and Wordsworth, which is felt in the poem’s language. In his autobiography, Noyes noted: “I think the success of the poem was because it was not an artificial composition, but was written at an age when I was genuinely excited by that kind of romantic story”7 – my appreciation of the poem has grown as I approach this age myself. The range of influence is clear in the Highwayman, and its archaisms lend it an ageless feel.
However, the key idea which makes this character so great, and my favourite in English literature, is his namelessness and ambiguity. This obscurity, combined with an air of the supernatural, roots the poem firmly in the Gothic genre. We never learn the Highwayman’s name, nor are we given a hint of what he looks like. Furthermore, he only ever appears “by moonlight”, explicitly associating him with the supernatural. Finally, in the last two stanzas, the poem becomes a ghost story; and the words “they say” are a nod to the way such stories are told. The character of the Highwayman is one unconfined by the boundaries of time, genre or morality. He is at once archaic and legendary, Romantic and Gothic, noble and criminal; and that is what makes him so enduring and so utterly fantastic.