Friday, October 9, 2015

Curfew Must Not Ring To-Night

Rose Hartwick Thorpe (1850–1939)
From American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney

“At his feet she tells her story.” Detail from illustration by Frank Thayer Merrill (1848–1923) for the 1882 edition of Curfew Must Not Ring To-Night.
In the fall of 1870 the editors of the weekly Detroit Commercial Advertiser received a poem from a recent high school graduate and published it in the newspaper. Not a single copy of the issue has been unearthed, but no matter: by the time an illustrated book edition appeared in 1882, Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s “Curfew Must Not Ring To-Night” had been reprinted in newspapers across the country, in Canadian and British magazines, and even in the Australian Journal; in anthologies of poetry and handbooks for orators; and in collections of pieces suitable for school programs. It is impossible to overstate the popularity and ubiquity of Thorpe’s ballad at the turn of the century. In 1916 the popular journalist George Wharton James opened his sixty-page study of the sixty-line poem by asking his readers, “Who is there that has not read ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’?” and presented a lengthy biographical sketch of the poet, an analysis of the work, the sources of the “legend,” and a few samples from the dozens of parodies (“Rooster must not crow tonight!”) and vaudeville skits created since the poem’s publication.

In the late 1880s Thorpe recalled for a Chicago magazine how the poem came to be. While reading the September 1865 issue of Peterson’s, a popular women’s journal that published verse and fiction among articles on fashion and homemaking, she stumbled upon “Love and Loyalty,” an anonymously written short story by “a new contributor.”* The tale features a young woman, Bessie, whose lover, Basil, has been condemned to die at curfew by a council of Cromwell’s Puritan associates during the English Civil War. Rose, who was supposed to be working on her math homework, couldn’t get the story out of her head:
The figures became a confused unintelligible jumble of meaningless characters; but clearly and distinctly before my mental vision arose these words: “Curfew must not ring tonight.” Again and again I resolutely banished them, but they returned persistently, until in sheer desperation I swept the exasperating figures from my slate and wrote “England’s sun was slowly setting.”
The notebook containing this first draft, with the title “Bessie and the Curfew,” is dated April 5, 1867—when Rose was only sixteen years old. Three years later the finished poem with its familiar title was accepted for publication, and she received as payment a one-year subscription to the newspaper (value: $1.50). She agreed to delete the last stanza, both for reasons of space and because she wasn’t quite happy with it; as a result, it is omitted from many versions of the poem. She subsequently revised the final stanza and included it in her 1887 collection Ringing Ballads, the source of the text used here.

Before the end of the century, Thorpe published three collections of her poetry and a number of children’s books, but none of her efforts ever received a modicum of the attention paid to her debut. Financial considerations at the dawn of the twentieth century compelled her and her husband to move to the San Diego area and they eventually settled in La Jolla, where she continued to write and publish occasional essays and poems while working for temperance and women’s suffrage causes.

* In recent years “Love and Loyalty” has been mistakenly attributed, without substantiation, to poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney, who died in 1865 two months before the story appeared in Peterson’s. It seems implausible that the editors would have disguised as a “new contributor” one of their most popular (and recently deceased) writers; as late as 1901 an inquiry published in The New York Times indicated that the author’s identity remained a mystery. In addition, in the 150 years since the story appeared, commentators have often asserted that it is based on an actual historical event, but it was likely inspired instead by Albert Smith’s play Blanche Heriot, or The Chertsey Curfew and story “Blanche Heriot: A Legend of Old Chertsey Church,” both published in 1842. Smith’s works feature a strikingly similar heroine and plot but take place during the fifteenth-century War of the Roses rather than the seventeenth-century English Civil War.

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England’s sun was slowly setting o’er the hilltops far away,
Filling all the land with beauty at the close of one sad day; . . .
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