GREENAWAY MEDAL WINNER – 1981
Alfred Noyes, text
Charles Keeping, illustrations
Age: 10 +
(Reading Level: 9 +)
Interests: poetry, romance, history, horror, ghost story
Also by this illustrator: Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary, The God Beneath the Sea, Beowulf, The Lady of Shalott, Through the Window, Charles Keeping’s Classic Tales of the Macabre
A lurid, romantic poem about ill-fated lovers. A price on his head, the dashing highwayman promises to meet his love, the “inn-keeper’s black-eyed daughter” Bess, by moonlight. A jealous rival overhears and alerts the soldiers, who march up to the inn and bind and gag Bess, intending to kill her lover when he arrives. To warn the highwayman of the danger, Bess manages to put her finger on the trigger of the musket aimed at her heart and shoots herself as he rides up the lane. Enraged, the highwayman charges the soldiers and is shot down “like a dog on the highway”, but the ghosts of the ill-fated lovers continue to haunt the inn.
Yikes. Apparently this macabre tale was, for years, taught in schools, though I’d never read before. No doubt young goths would love this poem, which is still a favourite among the British public. (In a 1995 BBC poll it ranked #15 of Britain’s favourite poems.) The black and white illustrations in this edition have a modern, scratchy, nervous verve to them, emphasizing the nightmarish quality of the story.
The reading level of this poem is generally placed at age 9 / grade 4 and up, though I think the subject matter might be too gory for young readers. The romantic side of the story should appeal to slightly older children, maybe ‘tweens’ of 10, 11, or 12, who can better handle the violence and blood-soaked scenes.