Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight

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Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight is a narrative poem by Rose Hartwick Thorpe, written in 1867 and set in the 17th century. It was written when she was 16 years old and first published in Detroit Commercial Advertiser.[1]


The story involves Bessie, a young woman whose lover, Basil Underwood, has been arrested, thrown in prison by the Puritans and sentenced to die that night when the curfew bell rings. Knowing that Oliver Cromwell will be late in arriving, the young woman begs the old sexton to prevent the ringing of the curfew bell. When he refuses, she climbs to the top of the bell tower and heroically risks her life by manually stopping the bell from ringing. Cromwell hears of her deed and is so moved that he issues a pardon for Underwood.

Text of poem[edit]

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 to-night!"

"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 to-night!"

"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 falter. Curfew bell 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;
One low murmur, faintly spoken. "Curfew must not ring to-night!"

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 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.
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 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, 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 hagggard, 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 to-night!"

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 to-night."[2]

Related matters[edit]

The poem, a favorite of Queen Victoria's, was one of the most popular of the 19th century, but later faded into obscurity.[3] It is recited by the character Prissy Andrews in L M Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables

The poem was set to music in 1895, by Stanley Hawley and published as sheet music" by Robert Cooks and Co.[4] Despite this, three silent films based on the poem were made. In two of the films, the title was modified to Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight. No sound version has been made; however, the poem is quoted at length by Katharine Hepburn (for comedic effect) in the film Desk Set (1957).

A later Victorian poem, "Chertsey Curfew" by Montgomerie Ranking, is on a similar theme.[5]

The material upon which Rose Hartwick Thorpe based her poem is Lydia Sigourney's article "Love and Loyalty", which appeared posthumously in Peterson's Magazine in September 1865[6] and which in turn is very likely to have been based on the earlier work "Blanche Heriot. A legend of old Chertsey Church", which was published by Albert Richard Smith in The Wassail-Bowl, Vol. II., in 1843.[7] In this account, the young woman, Blanche Heriot, has a lover known as Neville Audley, and the action takes place during the Wars of the Roses in 1471.

An illustrated version of this poem is contained in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated by James Thurber.

The poem is mentioned by author Antonia White in her autobiography As Once in May. As a child she read it repeatedly until she knew it by heart.

The song is parodied in the song "Hang on the Bell, Nellie" performed by the Chad Mitchell Trio.

The final episode of the television series Bachelor Father is entitled "Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight", in which two characters recite final lines from the poem, in reference to the curfew of a college boarding house.[8]


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