The Highwayman and the Major Arcana

I don’t know precisely why it should be so (although I have a hunch that is rooted in psychology), but somber poems seem to lend themselves really well to my project of interpreting classic poetry in terms of the tarot trump cards.  Here is a vivid example, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.

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.

This can only be the Moon, with its “ghostly galleon” and the grim path leading between the twin pillars. It’s hard to visualize the crustacean as “riding – riding-riding” but a little “suspension of disbelief” can work wonders. If not, the next card covers it.

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.

I like the Chariot here.

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.

Here is the Lovers in no uncertain terms.

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—

The Devil in the woodpile? It’s not clear that the ostler ratted out the highwayman, but we can read between the lines.

“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.”

His bravado makes me think of Strength.

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 moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

The highwayman starting off on a quest suggests the Fool.

Part II

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 gipsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
   Marching—marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

Ah, here’s where that lobster comes in! No, actually I see the highwayman’s tardiness as the Hanged Man and the redcoats as the Emperor.

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.

Here I would use Death; the plot has taken a sinister turn

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 doomed 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!

Her solitary vigil reminds me of the Hermit.

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!

The moment of truth! How about Justice?

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.

Her stillness and silence conjure the image of the High Priestess.

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!

The Wheel of Fortune; the situation is on the cusp of a major change.

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 Tower lays her low.

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 gray 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.

The Magician spells his escape.

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.

Judgement, I would think.

* * * *

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.

The highwayman, now a spirit, comes seeking his customary liaison. While this looks like a reprise of the Moon (and we might say that nothing that starts under the light of the Moon can end well), I’m thinking that the blandly detached Hierophant would be a suitable expression of the highwayman’s yearning for closure being locked into an endless and hopeless replay.

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.

The Star shows their eternal longing and their unrequited love, now only a dim and distant abstraction.

Note that there are few truly benevolent cards here. The scenario is awash in anxiety that goes from bad to worse, with the Tower as its crescendo and the relatively resigned Hierophant and Star as its postscript. The Empress, the Sun and the World don’t make an appearance, nor does the mild encouragement of Temperance. I decided to lay out the cards of the Thoth deck in a “plot advancement” structure with the Devil and the Tower as critical turning points.

DSC01218.JPG

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s