When I was seven or eight or so, and was running a high fever, my dad came into the bedroom where I was sprawled to keep me company for a spell. He had a book of poems with him and he read me, The Highwayman. I don't know if this was his choice, or he simply said to me, pick one, and I haphazardly selected it. I think it was the former, but can't recall for certain.
Afterwards, this became a tradition. Whenever I got sick, Dad, in what came to be thought of us as a therapeutic step toward recovery, would come into the bedroom where I had, no doubt, a cold washcloth over my head, and he would read the highwayman to me.
I once told a girlfriend about this ritual and she was startled. "Your father read you that poem when you were eight?"
I don't know if she was familiar with the poem or went to read it after I told her about it, but either way shortly after I told her about Dad's therapy, she was stunned that this would be a poem you'd read to your kid.
You might think she had a point. The poem is about a robber; an illicit lover; police depicted less than honorably; a jealous snitch; and two bloody murders.
But I was as startled by her reaction as she was by the fact that dad read me the poem when I was a young boy. The poem was beautiful as far as I was concerned, nothing out of whack about it.
In the poem, a highwayman--a robber--rides his horse to an inn. There, "Bess the landlord's black eyed daughter", was waiting for him,"plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair."
The highwayman would be plying his trade that night and so informs his lover.
"One kiss my bonny sweetheart, for I'm after a prize tonight, but I should 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, and I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way."
A jealous hostler--the groom who takes care of the horses--secretly loves Bess. He surreptitiously listens in on the conversation between Bess and the highwayman. After the highwayman rides away, the hostler contacts the redcoats.
With this tip, the police come to the inn and set a trap for the highwayman. They say "no word to the landlord; they drank his ale instead." Then they go to Bess and tie her up "with many a sniggering jest" placing a rifle barrel "beneath her breast." They tell her to "'keep good watch' and they kissed her"
Bess knows her lover is doomed because the redcoats will wait for him at the inn and she, tied and gagged, will not be able to warn him. She remembers his last words to her:
"Look for me by moonlight, watch for me by moonlight, and I'll come to thee by moonlight though hell should bar the way."
Eventually, she hears her highwayman riding in. She had wrestled with the rope while she was waiting. While she could not get out of the binding, she could reach the trigger of the rifle that was pointed at her breast.
She hears the horse again.
"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."
The highwayman races away not knowing that the shot he heard was Bess's warning, but the next morning he discovers what's transpired.
"Not til the dawn did he hear it, and his face grew gray to hear, how Bess the landlord's daughter, the landlord's blackeyed daughter, had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.
"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 in the golden noon, wine red 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 a bunch of lace at his throat."
This is a poem you read your eight year old? A lover kills herself to warn her lover. And the saved lover is so crazed that he rides into his own bloody death.
You bet your 2011 it is.
In a few days we begin our next lap around the track. Can there be any message more meaningful for us to carry as we travel than to remember that the most powerful force in the world--and the most precious therapeutic balm for our sickness--is love.
Happy New Year.