The Highwayman


The Highwayman

Alfred Noyes, text

Charles Keeping, illustrations

Oxford, 1981

32 pp.

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.

(This title available at


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Grace
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 11:19:58

    I remember reading this one in school as a kid and liking it; it was a nice change from the more boring stories that we normally read in class where nothing interesting ever happened. The ghosts at the end were a nice touch. Looking back as an adult it does seem a lot more grim. 🙂


    • Kim
      Mar 13, 2012 @ 11:24:59

      It does have great drama and suspense, very Poe-like and ‘Halloweeny’, which of course would appeal to most kids. I would guess that most classroom texts didn’t have the gruesome illustrations – that would be left up to your imagination!
      Thanks for commenting!


  2. Cassie
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 12:15:26

    I’m really loving these illustrations.


  3. bundleofbooks
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 12:16:29

    I have a copy of this, The Lady of Shallot and Beowulf. My mum bought them for my brother and I when we were still quite young. I found them all very scary, but completely entrancing! They made me feel sad in a way that poetry had never made me feel before, even if I didn’t fully understand why. Hmm…I might have to go round to mum’s just to double check she still has them!


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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