Friday, August 27, 2010

The Highwayman - A Memory Piece

I've often thought that memory is much like one of those elaborate Chinese medicine cabinets with a hundred drawers with brass handles. Some of the drawers are opened often while others only occasionally. And then there are drawers that were opened many years ago and never touched again. One of those last drawers popped open for me tonight - though considering how long ago it was that I last opened it the wonder is that it didn't creak and resist.

Walking home from dinner at Stella Maris, our local trattoria - nothing fancy just good home cooked Sardo food and always a table available for the Canadese - I noticed a misty ring around the moon and for some reason a poem from grade school sprung to mind. I was carried back to a basement classroom at Franklin Horner Public School and Miss Vardi teaching us the words, rhythm and cadence of Alfred Noyes' most famous work: The Highwayman.
The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding--
Riding--riding--
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.

He'd a French cocked hat on his forehead, and a bunch of lace at his chin;
He'd a coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of fine doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to his thigh!
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle--
His rapier hilt a-twinkle--
His pistol butts a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
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.

For the rest of this exciting poem, and believe me it is exciting, just click here.

I searched for the drawing that I recalled from our text book but nothing showed up or at least not as I remembered it. But I thought this rather dark and brooding rendering captured the spirit of the poem.

Having just reread it I can now understand why we were encourage - nay made - to learn it as both a memory and a literature exercise. It is a fine piece of action and descriptive writing. Now I can see its usefulness as a language tool - I only wish I had remember that when I was teaching English to my Polish Generals in Warsaw. The vocabulary is challenging enough - how else would I have ever learned what an ostler was; not that I ever recall using the term in general, or come to think of it even specific, conversation. But I think it is the use of action verbs and the descriptive language that make it such a great piece for teaching English. And aside from that it is, to my uneducated mind at least, still a damned good read.

I can almost forgive Noyes for his other well-known poem The Barrel Organ which includes the lines:
There's a barrel organ carolling across a golden street
In the City as the sun sinks low;
Though the music's only Verdi there's a world to make it sweet
Only Verdi! Shame on you Alfred, shame on you.

27 agosto - Santa Monica
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3 comments:

YELLOWDOG GRANNY said...

i love good poety and i really do like that.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I well remember learning The Highwayman in school too! A cloud-draped moon will always be a ghostly galleon to me.

Doralong said...

I had to learn that one too, it remains a favorite. I would get so caught up in the images it conjured in my head.