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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Number 158: Rose Hartwick Thorpe "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight"

Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight

Slowly England's sun was setting o'er the hilltops far away,
Filling all the land with beauty at the close of one sad day;
And its last rays kissed the forehead of a man and maiden fair --
He with steps so slow and weary; she with sunny, floating hair;
He with bowed head, sad and thoughtful, she, with lips all cold and white,
Struggling to keep back the murmur, "Curfew must not ring tonight!"

"Sexton," Bessie's white lips faltered, pointing to the prison old,
With its walls tall and gloomy, moss-grown walls dark, damp and cold --
"I've a lover in the prison, doomed this very night to die
At the ringing of the curfew, and no earthly help is nigh.
Cromwell will not come till sunset;" and her lips grew strangely white,
As she spoke in husky whispers, "Curfew must not ring tonight!"

"Bessie," calmly spoke the sexton (every word pierced her young heart
Like a gleaming death-winged arrow, like a deadly poisoned dart),
"Long, long years I've rung the curfew from that gloomy, shadowed tower;
Every evening, just at sunset, it has tolled the twilight hour.
I have done my duty ever, tried to do it just and right:
Now I'm old, I will not miss it. Curfew bell must ring tonight!"

Wild her eyes and pale her features, stern and white her thoughtful brow,
As within her secret bosom, Bessie made a solemn vow.
She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh,
"At the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die."
And her breath came fast and faster, and her eyes grew large and bright;
One low murmur, faintly spoken. "Curfew must not ring tonight!"

She with quick step bounded forward, sprang within the old church-door,
Left the old man coming slowly, paths he'd trod so oft before.
Not one moment paused the maiden, But with eye and cheek aglow,
Staggered up the gloomy tower, where the bell swung to and fro;
As she climbed the slimy ladder, on which fell no ray of light,
Upward still, her pale lips saying, "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

She has reached the topmost ladder, o'er her hangs the great dark bell;
Awful is the gloom beneath her, like the pathway down to hell.
See! the ponderous tongue is swinging; 'tis the hour of curfew now,
And the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath, and paled her brow.
Shall she let it ring? No, never! Her eyes flash with sudden light,
As she springs, and grasps it firmly: "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

Out she swung -- far out. The city seemed a speck of light below --
There twixt heaven and earth suspended, as the bell swung to and fro.
And the sexton at the bell-rope, old and deaf, heard not the bell,
Sadly thought that twilight curfew rang young Basil's funeral knell.
Still the maiden, clinging firmly, quivering lip and fair face white,
Stilled her frightened heart's wild throbbing: "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

It was o'er, the bell ceased swaying; and the maiden stepped once more
Firmly on the damp old ladder, where, for hundred years before,
Human foot had not been planted. The brave deed that she had done
Should be told long ages after. As the rays of setting sun
Light the sky with golden beauty, aged sires, with heads of white,
Tell the children why the curfew did not ring that one sad night.

O'er the distant hills comes Cromwell. Bessie sees him; and her brow,
Lately white with sickening horror, has no anxious traces now.
At his feet she tells her story, shows her hands, all bruised and torn;
And her sweet young face, still haggard, with the anguish it had worn,
Touched his heart with sudden pity, lit his eyes with misty light.
"Go! your lover lives," said Cromwell. "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

Wide they flung the massive portals, led the prisoner forth to die,
All his bright young life before him. Neath the darkening English sky,
Bessie came, with flying footsteps, eyes aglow with lovelight sweet;
Kneeling on the turf beside him, laid his pardon at his feet.
In his brave, strong arms he clasped her, kissed the face upturned and white,
Whispered, "Darling, you have saved me, curfew will not ring tonight."

-- Rose Hartwick Thorpe

Hap Notes: Ah, you may see this poem as a bit over-the-top and obscure but it was one of the most popular poems of the 19th century. It was a favorite of Queen Victoria. Rose Hartwick Thorpe ( 1850-1939), born in Mishawaka, Indiana, wrote it when she was 16 years old. (That accounts for much of it, eh?)

I must confess that the reason I have known the poem for so long by heart is because I first read it when I was 15 in Fables For Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated by humorous essayist and cartoonist James Thurber, of whom I was a devoted fan. Other poems (also known by heart as a youth) illustrated by Thurber include Excelsior by Longfellow, Barbara Frietchie by Whittier, Lochinvar by Scott and Locksley Hall by Tennyson. His amusing drawings were statements about the poems in their own right. It's one of two books I own proudly as a first edition (the other one is Fatal Interview by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Both were gifts and I love them even though I spilled candle wax on the cover of the Millay during power outage when I was reading. So typical of my whimsical ineptness.)

Thorpe was in high school in Michigan when she read a tale of a young woman stopping the ringing of the curfew bell by holding it by the clapper and dulling the sound, "The Legend of Chertsey Church". Her poem was first published in the Detroit Commercial Advertiser. It became a national (and worldwide English-speaking) hit and was subsequently made into three silent films. This poem was taught in the public schools for decades and it's another of the poems many people of my mother's generation knew by heart.

A few points: curfew rings at sunset. You probably understand this but just in case- young Bessie is trying to save her lover, Basil Underwood, from an execution which is sentenced to be done at curfew. Cromwell will possibly pardon him but he won't arrive until after curfew. Bessie climbs up the old steeple, jumped onto the clapper of the huge bell and gets banged up inside the big metal thing, dulling the sound so that curfew does not ring, Cromwell shows up, Basil gets out and Bessie gets her man. Now, come on- give it up for Bessie, here. This was a weird thing to do. And it worked!

Thorpe also wrote a poem called "The War-Cry At San Jacinto, Texas" that instilled forever that phrase uttered at that battle into the hearts of Americans; "Remember the Alamo!"

Thorpe moved to San Diego and was a founding member of the San Diego Woman's Club. She contributed to literary journals there and while her poetic output was large, our knowledge of it is scant. She sort of started at the top. You can buy a book of Thorpe's poetry now, thanks to Amazon but I cannot guarantee they will be any better than this poem.

Don't toss this poem aside without reading it with some high drama in your voice. Many a lass and lad entertained their relatives after dinner with a "dramatic" recitation of this poem after dinner in the 20s, 30s and 40s.

You won't find much on Thorpe to read now but here is the Alamo Poem:

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