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—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door
The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
I first read The Highwayman when I was about 9 years old. My mother had sold enough World Book Encyclopedias to earn her family a free set of Childcraft, a sort of a children's encyclopedia with separate books on science, history, and literature. I read Childcraft regularly, particularly the history and literature books. And I loved the poem when I came across it. I was and still am a sucker for metaphoric description and dramatic phrasing. I quickly memorized it and would give dramatic recitations of it to whomever would listen. And the first two lines of that poem have stayed with me ever since.
I am thinking about this because the first two nights of this week featured a “torrent of darkness” and especially the “ghostly galleon” of the moon “tossed upon cloudy seas.” This week has featured both a lead up to a full moon, a lunar eclipse and a full moon itself. I have been reveling in all of that. The lunar eclipse was yesterday, visible starting at 3:16 AM on the East Coast. In all honesty, I did not get up in time to catch the whole thing, but I was up it as it ended at about 6:15. There was also a full moon that night, and the moon for several days leading up to the eclipse was just gorgeous, bright and magnetic as it was “tossed upon the cloudy seas.” I love night skies, particularly in the autumn and winter. They seem so real and “there” at those times of the year. And they bring me quiet joy and a sense of peace.
I have been conscious of the moon since reading The Highwayman so many years ago, and I have always noticed crescent, half, quarter and especially full moons. Noticing these things brings me a type of joy, quiet amazement, and comfort. These things happen regularly, are visible to us, so it seems to suggest to me that all if right with the world. All human cultures have done these things, of course, and all human cultures have explanations, usually spiritual and/or religious, for the phases of the moon, its location as it appears to us on Earth, its effects on the Earth, and more. Most cultures have usually viewed the moon as female, as it seems tied to the menstrual cycle in women. That coincidence was noted a long time ago. The word, “lunar” is, in fact, derived from Luna, the Greek and Roman goddesses of the moon. It is her domain. Luna is also the root of the word, “lunatic.” It was believed that the moon could affect human behavior, especially that of women. These ancient cultures knew that the moon affected the tides on Earth, and they knew about water in the body, particularly in the brain. And they made connections. Aristotle thought that the brain, as the moistest part of body, was affected by the moon as were the tides on Earth-it seemed logical. Pliny, the Roman soldier, naturalist, and philosopher, also taught that theory. So the moon was seen, therefore, as responsible for strange human behavior, or “lunacy." The Greeks had passed this on to the Romans, and it eventually came down to us.
When I was a kid, we believed that the full moon was an especially ripe time for strange, eerie, and weird things. It was dangerous; there would be people flipping out and “losing their minds,” crime outbreaks, the dead rising, werewolves, and more. We used to dare each other to go the church graveyard about a mile away on a full moon night to prove how tough we were. If we were able to do that and come back, then we had proven our manliness. Of course, years of scientific research has shown that there is absolutely no link between the moon and “lunacy” in people. But many people still earnestly believe that the full moon does affect people’s emotions, moods, and sanity. And that it portends strange things. We have anecdotes that we tell that demonstrate this. We even have an entire literature and movie industry that has played up this belief to good fortune. One of the things this proves is that good “myths’ do not die easily.
For me, I just enjoy the immense comfort I get from noticing the moon out there and seeing it doing its thing. It is always there, there going through its phases regularly, quietly, and majestically. I sometimes think of the moon as watching over us in a way that seems gentler and more friendly than the sun. It is not hot and harsh, and it does not seem to be “beating down” on us. It is out there hovering over us and providing a certain assuredness that all is right with the world. And yes, that is my “myth”... my belief (smile.) And that allows me to just look up at it in wonder. and to feel gratitude that it is still there. How pleasing.
(Link to The Highwayman
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