This poem has a lot of sentimental value for me – it was one of my mother’s favourites. She died when I was thirteen and I remember a few years later, when I was in high school, trying to find a copy of it for an English assignment. This was before the days of the internet and Google. ;-)
At any rate, I wasn’t even sure of the title and had no idea who wrote it, but I went to the local bookstore (our town was small enough that it had only one) and the lady there not only knew the poem, she found me a book that included it – the joys of living in a small town.
It became one of my favourites too – I loved the romance of the story it told. The author, Rose Hartwick Thorpe, was only 17 when she wrote this poem, and although she went on to write other poems and stories, it still stands as her most memorable.
Curfew must Not Ring To-night
Rose Hartwick Thorpe (1850–1939)
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 the last rays kissed the forehead of a man and maiden fair,
He with footsteps 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 to-night.”
“Sexton,” Bessie’s white lips faltered, pointing to the prison old,
With its turrets tall and gloomy, with its walls dark, damp, and cold,
“I’ve a lover in that 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 breathed the husky whisper, “Curfew must not ring to-night.”
“Bessie,” calmly spoke the sexton,—every word pierced her young heart
Like the piercing of an 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 told the twilight hour;
I have done my duty ever, tried to do it just and right,
Now I’m old I will not falter. Curfew, it must ring to-night.”
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;
In an undertone she murmured, “Curfew must not ring to-night.”
With quick step she bounded forward, sprung within the old church door,
Left the old man threading slowly paths so oft he’d trod before;
Not one moment paused the maiden, but with eye and cheek aglow
Mounted up the gloomy tower, where the bell swung to and fro
As she climbed the dusty ladder on which fell no ray of light—
Up and up, her white lips saying, “Curfew must not ring to-night.”
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.
Lo, 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! flash her eyes with sudden light,
As she springs, and grasps it firmly—“Curfew shall not ring to-night!”
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 clung more firmly, and with trembling lips so white,
Said to hush her heart’s wild throbbing: “Curfew shall not ring to-night!”
It was o’er, the bell ceased swaying, and the maiden stepped once more
Firmly on the dark 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
Crimson all the sky with beauty; agèd sires, with heads of white,
Tell the eager, listening children, “Curfew did not ring that night.”
O’er the distant hills came Cromwell; Bessie sees him, and her brow,
Lately white with fear and anguish, has no anxious traces now.
At his feet she tells her story, shows her hands all bruised and torn;
And her face so sweet and pleading, yet with sorrow pale and worn,
Touched his heart with sudden pity, lit his eyes with misty light:
“Go! your lover lives,” said Cromwell, “Curfew shall not ring to-night.”
Wide they flung the massive portal; led the prisoner forth to die,—
All his bright young life before him. ’Neath the darkening English sky
Bessie comes with flying footsteps, eyes aglow with love-light sweet;
Kneeling on the turf beside him, lays 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 to-night!”