The Trigger At Last Was Hers

The version of The Highwayman¬†on Reely’s Audio Poems is a little different than you will find on most sites. It comes from a 1912 book. Honestly, I am not really looking for these little differences, it’s more like they jump out at me when I’m reading a poem. Some poems I know or recall in a different way in the first place. Some just don’t make sense to me so I investigate further to see if I’m right or way off base.

Such was the case with The Highwayman. Reading it on Wikipedia, I get to the part where Bess, the landlord’s daughter, the landlord’s black-eyed, red-lipped daughter (some online versions leave out her red lips), gets her finger on the musket’s trigger. After the struggle she went through to get hold of the musket’s trigger, it just didn’t make sense for the line to say “… The trigger at least was hers.” I thought it should be “at last.”

‘At least’ conveys something entirely different – a sense of resignation – when the next part makes it clear that just getting hold of the trigger was in fact Bess’s intention. If the red-coats heard Bess, she must’ve strongly doubted they’d shoot her. She surely knew they fully meant for her to watch them kill her lover. No, they would not be the ones to fire a shot and only a shot would warn the highwayman away.

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;

Off I went to investigate and I found it in a digitized book, The Home Book of Verse, American and English (1580-1912). I’d like to say “I was right, I was right,” but like most poems, there are many versions floating around. Indeed the Librivox recording doesn’t follow the 1912 text, but even though the reader (Chip) says “the trigger at least was hers,” he reads it with the urgency that would make “at last” really work.

I am of course very interested to know whether “least” or “last” makes more sense to you and why.



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2 Responses

  1. Karen says:

    Wow – good catch!! There is a HUGE difference between “at least” or “at last.”

  2. Trish says:

    When “at least” was used, I always perceived it as meaning that up to that point, Bess had no control over the situation — she had not been able to stop the red-coats from entering the inn, drinking the ale, doing who-knows-what-else to her father (the poem does not reveal what became of him), and binding and gagging her.

    However, by getting hold of the trigger, at least she could regain control by firing the musket and thereby warning the highwayman to stay away from the inn and seek shelter elsewhere.

    Of course, Bess would know that to fire the musket would mean her death — but she is not necessarily “resigned” to it. She is willing to sacrifice her life for that of her love.

    It is an interesting premise, though, and I think I actually prefer the use of “at last”.

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