The lyrics of the song are an abridged version of a poem by Alfred Noyes: Loreena left out three verses. These verses are given here in italics; see below the lyrics for some remarks about this.

Loreena McKennitt - The Highwayman

Part One
  1. 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.

  2. 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 hilts a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

  3. And 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.

  4. 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:

  5. "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;
    If they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
    Then look for me by the moonlight,
    Watch for me be the moonlight,
    I'll come to thee by the moonlight, though hell should bar the way."

  6. 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 waves in the moonlight!)
    He tugged at his reins in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

Part Two
  1. He did not come at the dawning. He did not come at noon;
    And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise o' 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.

  2. 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;
    Hell at one dark window;
    For Bess could see, through the casement, the road that he would ride.

  3. They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
    They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
    "Now, keep good watch!" and they kissed her. She heard the dead man say-
    'Look for me by the moonlight;
    Watch for me by the moonlight;
    I'll come to thee by the moonlight, though hell should bar the way!'

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 'Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot!' Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs 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.

  7. '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.

  8. He turned; He spurred to the west; he did not know she stood
    Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
    Not till the dawn he heard it, 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.

  9. And 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 i' 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 the bunch of lace at his throat.

  10. '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 in-door.

  11. Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
    And 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.'

Loreena writes in the CD-booklet about this song (compare the introduction to the CD):

July 1993, Stratford:
Some friends have offered that I set Alfred Noyes' poem "The Highwayman" to music. This dramatic, tragic narrative, rich with the imagery of 18th century rural England, could be fun to work on at Real World, where the surrounding landscape seems to exude that very atmosphere.

April 1996, Real World Studios:
I come across a local touris map which confirms that there was indeed a highwayman in the area a mere two hundred years ago! It's easy to imagine the sound of horses galloping down a moonlit lane, or on the ridge visible from the studio.

music: Loreena McKennitt
lyrics: Alfred Noyes (1880-1958), abridged by Loreena McKennitt
From: The book of secrets (1997).

A live version appears on Live in Paris and Toronto (1999).


The full poem, including the "missing verses", comes from Joshua Jay Lehto, who posted it on The Old Ways mailing list -- see Loreena McKennitt on the Web about this mailing list.
One correction is made to the first of the missing verses, verse III of Part One, thanks to Matt Garnham: the 3rd line of that verse as I received it read "..., his mouth like mouldy hay", but it should be "hair" instead of "mouth" -- which does make it more logical. I do not have a printed version of the poem to check it, though.


Some remarks and notes

Loreena has chosen to leave out three verses -- those given in italics above -- to shorten the song. Although this is of course Loreena's good right, I think she should not have left out the first of these three, the one about Tim.

In a poem I often skip the poetry and I go for the story. When I read Loreena's lyrics it was unclear to me why suddenly "King George's men came marching, up to the old inn-door" (first verse of Part Two). After reading the missing verse about Tim it was clear to me that Tim had warned them. Tim had overheard The Highwayman and Bess, standing in the darkness on the inn-yard. He loves Bess but she loves him not, and out of jealousy -- if I can't have her, then neither shall he -- Tim betrays The Highwayman to King George's men. In this sense I think the verse about Tim is essential to the poem.

Some people on The Old Ways mailing list speculated about Tim, who listened "dumb as a dog" to The Highwayman and Bess, that he was mute or mentally disabled. I don't think so because King George's men could literally cite what The Highwayman said to Bess (third verse of Part Two) and someone must have told them. No, Tim must have been able to speak and when standing in the dark inn-yard he just kept himself very quite in order to hear every word.

Rod Clark writes he remembers his English Literature instructor saying that the phrase regarding the Tim the Ostler listening "Dumb as a dog" was the authors poetic license to describe Tim in a derogatory manner. Being compared to a dog was and still is considered by many to be an insulting comparison. So is his description of Tim's hair as mouldy hay quite possibly meaning Tim either had dirty blonde hair or light brown hair.

The last part of the verse -- the words the Highwayman spoke to Bess -- can also refer to Bess remembering the words in a kind of flashback, since she expects her lover to die shortly because of the threat by King George's men. [Thanks to Marcio Luis Teixeira for pointing this out to me.] In a way this is also indicated by the punctuation of the lines: "...and they kissed her." ends with a period, and the words before that are between double quotes, whereas the citation of the Highwayman's words is between single quotes. I guess, after thinking about this again, that it is Bess who remembers what the Highwayman -- who will be a dead man shortly -- said. There is, however, no reason to assume that Tim was dumb!

By the way, the poem as given on a page now gone from the web had: "She heard the doomed man say-", where the "doomed man" would of course be the Highwayman. But this seems to be an error: it should be "dead man". Not only because Loreena's CD-booklet has "dead man" (and I think I hear her sing "dead man", not "doomed man"). But also the poem sent by Joshua Jay Lehto to The Old Ways mailing list has "dead man", and "dead man" is also used in the poem as printed in the book A Treasury Of The World's Best Loved Poems by Avenel Books [thanks to Andy for this info].

Elaine Braley notes that in verse VIII of Part Two the third line should read Not till the dawn he heard it, and slowly blanched to hear rather than ... his face grew gray to hear. But the latter is what Loreena sings, what is written in the CD-booklet and what I read on the webpages one finds searching for the poem on the Web, for example this web page and this web page and this web page [the latter website has a nice way of presenting the poem: verse by verse against a dark moon-lit background]. So all in all I think I will keep the line as it is.

As for the music Loreena wrote for this song: the beginning and the end are very good, the middle part (some 5 minutes) is dull in the sense of: not much variation, not much inspiration. At this point, Loreena did a much better job with Alfred Lord Tennysons "Lady of Shalott" on The visit, I think.


Mha Atma Khalsa writes that Phil Och wrote music and recorded the song in the 1960's, and that it is very good (although he left out more of the poem).

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last modified: 16 September 2007