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.
I know the first several verses by heart, but after a while I declared that I wasn't doing the poem justice, and I fetched a book and started again, reading it aloud to T and P with all the melodrama and beauty it deserves.
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.
"The Highwayman" (1906) is not the sort of poem that's fashionable these days. The story it tells is pure soap opera without any attempt at exploration of self or capturing what it is to be alive in our modern world. The language is over-the-top poetical, right down to Tim the Ostler's "hair like moldy hay," which cracks me up every time. If Noyes submitted this poem to a critic today he would be scorned and derided and held up as an example of the worst kind of amateur idiocy. He would certainly not be published, much less admired.
So let me tell you what happened when I finished my dramatic reading of this less than stellar poem. T immediately ran to get paper and pencil, settled herself on the loveseat beside me, and composed a poem of her own. Her poem was about 20 lines long, describing a fairy gathering in a dark woods. It borrowed the use of repetition from Noyes, as well as a certain flavor of moonlight and mystery. Over the next week or so T reread "The Highwayman" enough times to memorize the first verse and bits and pieces from other parts of the poem. All fired up, she had me print out several pages of poems for her, her favorites selected from the stack of anthologies I put in her eager hands.
In their school poetry units over the past few years, P and T have been regularly instructed not to make their poems rhyme. When they come home complaining, I explain to them that the teachers are just trying to make sure that their first priority is to pick the perfect word for the situation, instead of trying to jam in an irrelevant or inappropriate word simply because it happens to rhyme. But after trying to help justify the teachers' reasoning, I go on to sympathize with my children, because in my heart I know something about poetry that all the critics of the past fifty years or more seem to have missed. I'd be willing to bet (if I were a betting woman) that "The Highwayman," for all its melodrama, has created more poetry-lovers than all the deep, gritty, relevant, impenetrable words of today's "best" poems. Prose broken up into lines is not poetry, and perhaps it takes a child to prove that simple fact.
Of course I'm absolutely not saying that words have to rhyme to be poetry. What I am saying is that children - and perhaps adults, too - don't learn to love poetry by reading just any old words. The power of real poetry is that it grips us more deeply than the mere meanings of the words. The words of poetry are more than their sum. They are meaning and sound, rhythm and emotion and color and light, exploding pictures in the mind and unfurling blossoms in the heart. Poems pour into us in a purer form than prose, and it's all those poetic tools that make it possible: simile and metaphor, startling images, juxtapositions, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, and yes, rhyme. The best poems sound like they rhyme even when they don't, because the words move with such a cadence as they pour in. And the poems that sound just like prose? Well, do they make you grab a pencil and start writing your own visions? Do they cling to your imagination so that within days you have them by heart? Do they make you hungry for more poetry? That's what "The Highwayman" did for T.
[Pictures: Turpin clearing the Toll Gate, wood block print, anonymous, 1837;
Tom King, wood block print for a Victorian paper theatre.]