Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The poetry of Stanley Kunitz

"That pack of scoundrels
stumbling through the gate
emerges
as the order of the state"

       The System
        Stanley Kunitz


Stanley Kunitzs's poetry has appeared before on this blog (here). I just love his work.

 The Testing Tree
Stanley Kunitz

In a murderous time
    the heart breaks and breaks
     and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
    through dark and deeper dark
     and not turn.
I am looking for the trail.
    where is my testing tree
     Give me back my stones.
                     
The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.


Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) is among the US's most acclaimed poets, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.  Kunitz wrote poetry for over 80 years and until his death, aged 100, he was active as a poet, writer, activist and mentor to young poets.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Remembering Mike Marqusee (1953-2015)

"Go back to his books and rediscover the potency and the appeal – and, often, the joie d’esprit – of his writings: on cricket, on Muhammad Ali, on his own journey as an anti-Zionist Jew and, of course, on Bob Dylan."
Anne Beech, Pluto Press




"The crowd reminds me that I only put myself
in other people’s shoes
because I couldn’t find my own
and the common locker was so near at hand.”
Mike Marqusee


Mike Marqusee, who died in London last week aged just 61, was a man of immense talents and a beautiful writer who combined a career and life of writing with a profound lifelong commitment to political activism.

One of many things that I appreciated about Mike Marqusee was that he was a living example of the ways that popular culture and writing could be harnessed as a vehicle for radical political analysis and protest without becoming ideological dogma. 

His work also reminded us of the essential importance of art and culture- past and present- to radical political struggles. In a piece in Red Pepper he once wrote:
"The art of the past, is a precious, irreplaceable resource, and one that can be a powerful stimulant in the struggle for that other world we insist is possible. Listening to the voices of the dead is a necessary aspect of ‘contending for the living’..... 
Under capitalism, art is treated as a commodity, but there is something in art of any value that resists that status, breaks out of that dimension. There’s always a disconnection between its market value and its artistic value – whose very nature resists quantification. Each work of art has a claim of its own that cannot be measured in terms of another and thus cannot be reduced to exchange value. This was what William Blake had in mind when he declared: ‘Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only"
 Marqusee was a writer, a radical journalist, poet, Marxist writer, commentator and political activist. He wrote arguably the finest book on Bob Dylan Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 60s (2005), in which he explored the political, cultural and historical significance and legacy of Dylan’s 1960’s music.

His book on Muhammad Ali Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties is considered one of the great sporting books of all time. In it Marqusee restores Ali as an exemplar and symbol of radical conviction, and explores the ways that popular culture can be simultaneously a vehicle of protest and a vehicle of incorporation.

His political memoir and family history In If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an anti-Zionist Jew combined his own family history, with political theory and analysis of religious texts, to distinguish Jewishness from its co-option by the state of Israel.

Marqusee who described himself as a 'deracintaed Marxist, American Jew" was of Lithuanian-Jewish background and was born in the US, but had lived and worked in the UK since 1971.

Marqusee combined writing and journalism with a lifelong commitment to political activism for left and progressive causes. He was a dedicated political campaigner and activist and for many years, he was the Press Officer for the Stop the War Coalition that organized the over a million people march in London against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

He wrote books and articles on a remarkable and eclectic range of topics as diverse as history, cricket, India, sport, leftist and labor politics, poetry music and arts, popular culture, UK and world politics, anti-Zionism and his own experiences with cancer. He wrote a regular column for the Indian publication The Hindu, and was a regular columnist for the left-wing magazine Red Pepper (his columns are here). 

His last book the Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer was published in 2014 and explores the politics of cancer and his own experience of cancer treatment under the UK National Health Service. Marqusee wrote about the connection and interplay between neoliberal and market fundamentalism and the politics of cancer and the suffering experienced by people living with cancer.

Marqusee was also a published poet. His last book of poetry Street Music included poems written between 2009-2012, including this one.

THIS MORNING’S SURPRISE

This morning’s surprise is how much I’ll miss rail travel.
The green fields looming up and falling behind,
the milky tea wobbling in a plastic cup,
the engine’s steady vibration.

This afternoon’s surprise is how many shades of red there are,
each one sitting in a room of its own, dense in meditation.
Each one a field of conflict, a medium of conciliation.

This evening’s surprise is not that the novel ends
in a desultory return to the working week –
loose ends trimmed and tucked out of sight –
but the ferocity of my recoil
at the author’s glib contrivance.

Midnight’s surprise is Lorca’s moon floating over Hackney
full-faced, round-eyed and speaking Spanish.


An obituary in the Guardian is here  and personal tributes from his colleagues and comrades on the British left are herehere, herehere and here. The Red Pepper Magazine has published these tributes

The American sports writer Dave Zirin has written this heartfelt tribute to Mike Marqusee. 


Monday, January 19, 2015

Zygmunt Bauman on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and murders

In this piece in Social Europe the renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman places the recent Charlie Hedbo attacks in their historical, social and political context.
"There were two aspects of the Charlie Hebdo murders that set them apart from the two previous cases: 
First: on 7th January 2015 political assassins fixed a highly media-visible specimen of mass media. Knowingly or not, by design or by default, the murderers endorsed – whether explicitly or obliquely – the widespread and fast gathering public sense of effective power moving away from political rulers and towards the centres viewed as responsible for public mind-setting and opinion-making. It was the people engaged in such activities that the assault was meant to point out as culprits to be punished for causing the assassins’ bitterness, rancour and urge of vengeance. 
And second: alongside shifting the target to another institutional realm, that of public opinion, the armed assault against Charlie Hebdo was also an act of personalized vendetta (going back to the pattern set by Ayatollah Khomeini in his 1989 Fatva imposed on Salman Rushdie).

If the 11 September atrocity chimed in with the then tendency to “depersonalise” political violence (following the pour ainsi dire“democratisation” of violence by mass-media publicity that divided its attention according to the quantity of its – mostly anonymous and incidental – victims, and the volume of spilt blood), the 7th January barbarity crowns the lengthy process of deregulation – indeed the “de-institutionalisation”, individualization and privatisation of the human condition, as well as the perception of public affairs shifting away from the management of established aggregated bodies to the sphere of individual “life politics”. And away from social to individual responsibility. 
In our media-dominated information society people employed in constructing and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to be played"


Sunday, December 28, 2014

The poetry of Marge Piercy: 'To be of Use'

"Writers are citizens like plumbers and doctors. We suffer the same consequences from the bad and dangerous choices of politicians who are bought and sold and who have ideas that would not be out of place in the Dark Ages – where they truly belong or during that dandy period when thousands of women were burned at the stake after being intensively tortured because of male fantasies and fears..... Climate change, the suppression and increasing poverty of those who do not own enough to count, the erosion of the middle class and the outspoken hatred of those in power for the poor, the ever-increasing power of multinational corporations, the turning of elections into a mixture of spectacle and auction, all are coming true at a far more rapid rate than I anticipated".  
Marge Piercy

To be of Use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Marge Piercy (b 1935) is an American activist and feminist poet and novelist who has written 15 novels, 1 play and 17 volumes of poems.  Her writings focus on feminist and political and social concerns and reflect a profound commitment to radical political and social change. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Song of Renown: Townes Van Zandt The Catfish Song

"I'll kindle my fires with the words I can't send you/ And the roads I can't follow and the songs I can't sing/ I'll wander alone on the sleighbells of winter/ With the stars for a diamond and the world for a ring"  
Townes Van Zandt ,The Catfish Song
The Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997 aged just 52 after a long struggle with mental illness and addiction, is considered by many (me included) to be one of the finest contemporary songwriters.

Despite not being well known, Townes Van Zandt is revered and admired by musicians and musical aficionados alike as one of the most evocative lyricists in contemporary music. 

Van Zandt wrote songs of immense beauty, sadness and pathos, many of which draw from his conscious and unconscious experience and from historical and personal events. 

He wrote songs of tragedy and sadness, like Marie, perhaps the finest song ever written about homelessness and poverty, and songs of despair and sorrow in the face of the pain and struggle of daily life, such as A Song For (which mentions my home town Perth, Australia)

He also wrote songs that drew on his own struggle with mental illness and addiction, such as Sanitarium BluesThe Rake and The Hole.

 Van Zandt also wrote beautiful and life affirming songs of daily life, of love, of the cycles of nature and the landscape and environment, and of his reflections on the experiences of being human.

There is a timeless, poetic and deeply philosophical quality to his lyrics which stand as poetry first, then as music. For Van Zandt it was essential that songs work as poetry first and he worked tirelessly to craft his song lyrics.

The Catfish Song is the final track on Van Zandt's 1987 album At My WindowThe album was Townes Van Zandt's first studio album in 9 years and is full of magnificent songs of love, loss, grief, the beauty of daily life and the struggles of living. This includes Songs like Snowin on Raton (which has featured on this blog before), At My Window and For the Sake of the Song.

But for me, The Catfish Song is the highlight of the album and ranks in the my top ten Van Zandt songs of all time.

Van Zandt's world weary spoken singing style is accompanied by the evocative gospel style piano of renowned jazz and country pianist Charlie Cochran. It is a magnificent piece of instrumental support; a performance of haunting intensity and profound humanity. 





The Catfish Song
Townes Van Zandt 

Down at the bottom of that dirty old river

 Down where the reeds and the catfish play 
There lies a dream as soft as the water 
There lies a bluebird that's flown a way
Well to meet is like springtime, to love's like the summer 
Her brown eyes shown for nobody but me
In autumn forever the fool come a-fallin' 
And the rain turned to freezing inside of me 

I'll kindle my fires with the words 
I can't send you 
And the roads I can't follow 
and the songs I can't sing 
I'll wander alone on the sleighbells of winter 
With the stars for a diamond and the world for a ring 

Well all you young ladies who dream of tomorrow 
While you're listening these words will I say: 
Cling to today with its joy and its sorrow 
You'll need all your memories when youth melts away
Well the angel of springtime he rides down the south wind
The angel of summer, he does just the same
The angel of autumn, she's blue and she's golden
And the angel of winter won't remember your name
Down at the bottom of that dirty old river 
Down where the reeds and the catfish play 
There lies a dream as soft as the water 
There lies a bluebird that's flown away 
Oh there lies a bluebird that's flown away

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chris Hedges on the death of Tomas Young


Tomas Young with his wife, Claudia Cuellar, in March 2013.Creditphoto by Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press
"Young hung on as long as he could. Now he is gone. He understood what the masters of war had done to him, how he had been used and turned into human refuse" 
Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges writes about the death of Tomas Young on November 10, 2014, who was one of the first US veterans to speak out publicly against the war. Young was a 34 year old veteran of the bloody US led war in Iraq who was shot and paralyzed below the waist in Iraq in April 2004.

Hedges writes:
his final months were marked by a desperate battle to ward off the horrific pain that wracked his broken body and by the callous indifference of a government that saw him as part of the disposable human fodder required for war.............................................................. We must grieve for Tomas Young, for all the severely wounded men and women hidden from view, suffering their private torments in claustrophobic rooms, for their families, for the hundreds of thousands of civilians that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, for our own complicity in these wars. We must grieve for a nation that has lost its way, blinded by the psychosis of permanent war, that kills human beings across the globe as if they were little more than insects. It is a waste. We will leave defeated from Iraq and Afghanistan; we will leave burdened with the expenditure of trillions of dollars and responsible for mounds of corpses and ruined nations. Young, and here is the tragedy of it, was sacrificed for nothing. Only the masters of war, those who have profited from the rivers of blood, rejoice. And they know the dead cannot speak.
In October 2013 while contemplating suicide, Young sent an impassioned letter to George. W. Bush and other US leaders responsible for the Iraq War, in which he wrote:
My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Remembering Siev X and all those who died in the ocean off the WA coast

Thirteen years have passed since the sinking of the asylum seeker vessel designated Siev X, in which three hundred and fifty-three people, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drowned when the boat sank en route to Christmas Island on October 19, 2001.

The disaster has never been officially investigated and serious questions remain about Australia's role in and knowledge of the sinking. 

The Australian writer Arnold Zable published this article in the Age this week to remember the sinking, and Amal Basry, one of 45 people who, along with her son Amjed, survived that terrible event.

When the boat sank, Basry was separated from her son and spent 20 hours in the water clinging to a corpse, surrounded by the floating bodies of dead children and adults, all the time expecting to die with the others. She was rescued by an Indonesian fishing boat and begged them to search for her son Amjed. He was the last survivor found.

In his article Arnold Zable wrote:
She told the tale of the sinking many times, with  audiences ranging from one listener to a Melbourne town hall packed with more than 2000. She would get out of her sick bed to tell it.  She spoke of the "children like little birds floating on the water". She was condemned to bear witness. In a cruel irony Amal died of cancer in 2006. Her tale is a reminder of the courage it takes to risk the seas in search of a new life free of oppression. 
The broadcaster Phillip Adams also remembered those who died in his weekly column in the Murdoch empire propaganda rag known as The Australian. He wrote:
This one sank in waters that Brandis-speak might describe as "disputed". International waters but within Indonesia's search-and-rescue responsibility, and also within Australia's aerial border protection surveillance zone. The Indonesians failed the victims of SIEV X, but so did we. We claimed ignorance and poor weather as excuses for failing to identify or help the stricken vessel. 
The subsequent Senate Select Committee inquiry into "a certain maritime incident" (as bizarre a euphemism as any ever coined by a bureaucracy) mainly focused on a different scandal – "children overboard" – but its terms of reference extended to SIEV X. The report was unflinching in its findings. "It is extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles."
The boat known as Siev X set out in the pre-dawn darkness of October 18, 2001 from a Sumatran port with 421 asylum seekers on board. It was a rickety overcrowded, unseaworthy boat, bound for Australia. It was the height of the Howard's government manufactured "war" on refugees. At 3.10pm the following day, the boat, now known as SIEV-X, capsized and sank somewhere between the two countries with a terrible loss of life - 353 of the asylum-seekers drowned, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. 

The Australian government claimed it had no prior knowledge of the unfolding tragedy. Yet ministers and senior officials from the beginning mislead the Australian Senate and the community over important questions. What did the government and its agencies know about the boat and its fate, and when? Did we have any responsibility for the tragedy? Did we have a duty of care to save the survivors?
At the time Tony Kevin was one of the few people asking questions about the sinking and the Australian Government's knowledge and involvement. 

Tony's award winning book A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of Siev X is the definitive work on the sinking (as is the website SIEVX.com) and the documentary Hope.

Marg Hutton (who established and runs the website SIEVX.com) along with Tony Kevin, were largely responsible for uncovering and telling the story of Siev X and keeping the investigation alive when all around them wanted to deny and hide the truth. 

In this piece to commemorate the 2013 anniversary of the sinking, Marg Hutton wrote:

I know of 16 instances of people travelling alone or in family groups on SIEVX who were trying to reunite with other family members already here. When SIEVX foundered there were at least seven men living in Australia on TPVs whose entire families were washed away. 

For those bereaved men whose families were annihilated, SIEVX was a weight too massive to shoulder and inflicted a wound too deep to heal. As survivor Sadeq Al Albodie wrote: 'We continue to suffer. The tragedy was too big. We have seen the deaths of children and women parading between the waves. Our lives have been severely narrowed by what happened to us.' 

As testament to what the human spirit can survive, some of the bereaved husbands and fathers have married again and now have young families. The loss they endured is always present — it is not something they will ever recover from, but their lives go on. So there are now young kids growing up in Australia, who were born here and speak with Australian accents, who had brothers and sisters who drowned on SIEVX. 

SIEVX is not only a huge Australian tragedy, it is also an international one. Philip Ruddock, Immigration Minister in 2001 when news broke of the sinking, was unmoved by the plight of the survivors. Ruddock refused to provide visas to the 45 survivors and only accepted seven into Australia because to do otherwise, he claimed, would encourage more people to embark on similar dangerous journeys. 

Survivors were split up and resettled in far away countries including Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand. While all of the 23 'early survivors' who departed SIEVX the day before it sunk were eventually settled in Australia it was only after a gruelling wait of many years, despite the fact that most had family connections here. 

There were other cruelties meted out by our government to the survivors and bereaved of SIEVX. Sondos Ismail was travelling on SIEVX with her three young daughters, Eman, Fatima and Zhara to join her husband Ahmed Al Zalimi in Australia. Sondos survived the sinking but her three girls drowned. Her husband was unable to go to her because of the restrictions of his temporary protection visa — if he left the country he was not permitted to return and Philip Ruddock refused to bend the rules to help the couple.

Despite pleas to the government, five months passed before husband and wife were reunited in Australia. And even then their suffering at the hands of our authorities continued. In 2003 it was reported that Ahmed would be returned to Iraq when his visa expired. Thanks to a concerted community campaign this did not eventuate, but the needless pressure exerted on the couple who had already suffered so much, could not have assisted their recovery. 

When Ahmed was interviewed in July this year — the first time he had spoken publicly about SIEVX — he made it clear that the tragedy continues to torment his family: 'It is very very difficult to talk about there is a lot I can't say, my wife is still so depressed and it's been 12 years.' 

Australia's response to the SIEVX sinking is in stark contrast to how the Italian government responded to the recent tragedy off Lampedusa, where a similar huge number of asylum seekers lost their lives. Italy declared a day of national mourning and is reportedly providing state funerals for all 359 victims.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday's poems: Zbigniew Herbert


"Let us detach ourselves a little from this truly horrible everyday reality and try to write about doubt, anxiety, and despair"
Zbigniew Herbert

"It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry. It is not the barometer that changes the weather.

"Zbigniew Herbert

"This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor - this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist." 
Adam Zagajewski

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of Poland's most influential and celebrated poets. 

During WW2 he fought in the Polish resistance against the Nazis and in post war Poland he opposed Communist ideology, a risky position for a poet and citizen. During the 60's and 70's he refused to submit his poetry to the Communist Government, with the result that his work was not published till the 1980's and then in underground publications.




From Mr Cogito on a Set Topic: "Friends Depart"
with the inexorable
passing of years
his count of friends
shrank

they went off
in pairs
in groups
one by one
some paled like wafers
lost earthly dimensions
and suddenly
or gradually
emigrated
to the sky


I Would Like to Describe
Zbigniew Herbert


I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun 

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin
but apparently this is not possible

and just to say -- I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
and anger 
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentlemen
separated once and for all
and said
this is the subject
and this is the object 

we fall asleep 
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets
our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully


From "Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert";

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Phillip Pullman and the "greedy ghost of market fundamentalism"

"there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about.. things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight"   Phillip Pullman
This speech by the British novelist and writer Phiilip Pullman describes the 'greedy ghost of market fundamentalism' that haunts the offices, meeting rooms and conference rooms of Governments all over the world. 
Pullman describes how everything that sustains the fabric of a decent society and of communities is destroyed by the onslaught of the market fundamentalists and their acolytes. 
He is right. A great speech.
 "And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. 
Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”
Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days"

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday's poem in musical mode: Alfred Noyes The Highwayman

Alfred Noyes long narrative poem The Highwayman has long fascinated me.  

Like many others I learned to recite the poem at primary school and remain captivated by the poems rhythmic cadences and vivid imagery.  

The poem was written by Noyes at the turn of the 20th Century and is set in 18th century England. The poem  tells the story of a highwayman and his lover Bess, the landlord's (innkeeper) daughter. The Highwayman is betrayed to the authorities who take Bess hostage and wait in ambush for him. Bess sacrifices her life to warn him. 


Learning of her death he dies in a futile attempt at revenge, shot down on the highway. The final stanza tells us that the ghosts of the lovers meet again on winter nights.

The poem has also been turned into song, most notably (and successfully) by Loreena McKennitt and Andy Irvine.


A live version by Loreena McKennit is here



The Highwayman 
Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) 
                                   
                       PART ONE 
                                                 I 
    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. 

                                                 II 
    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 hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky. 

                                                 III 
    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. 

                                                 IV 
    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— 

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

                                                 VI 
    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, black waves in the moonlight!)
    Then he tugged at his rein in the moonliglt, and galloped away to the West. 

  
                                        PART TWO 
                                                 I 
    He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
    And out o' 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 matching, up to the old inn-door. 

                                                 II 
    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;
                      And hell at one dark window;
    For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride. 

                                                 III 
    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 moonlight;
                      Watch for me by moonlight;
    I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way! 

                                                 IV 
    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! 

                                                 V 
    The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
    Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel 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 . 

                                                 VI 
        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! 

                                                 VII 
    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. 

                                                 VIII 
    He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who 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. 

                                                 IX 
    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. 

                  *           *           *           *           *           * 
                                                 X 
    And 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 inn-door.
 

                                                 XI 
    Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
    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.