Michigan girl’s poem, “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight,” moved thousands, brought fame – but no profit
Editor’s note: This article appeared as a chapter in “White Pine Whispers” published in 1998. We have been authorized by author Larry Massie to reprint. Massie is a historian and author who resides in Allegan Forest, Michigan.
*As the chalk clicked rhythmically across the slate, 16-year-old Rose Hartwick seemed intent on her homework. Earlier that day the schoolmaster had berated her for inattention and her mother had scolded not to fritter away time dreaming about the poetry that was her passion. She had solemnly promised to obey, then sat down to study by the light of the fireplace.
But even as she clutched the dog-eared arithmetic text, thoughts returned to the story that had haunted her since reading it the day before in a popular magazine. Over and over she mulled the phrase, “Curfew must not ring tonight.”
Then she began to write, lost in the 17th century English Civil War that pitted merciless Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans against the Cavaliers, as verse after verse flowed down the hand slate, front and back. Only after finishing the poem did her mind spring back to her own time – April 5, 1867 – in that little community of Litchfield in northwestern Hillsdale County.
By then it was bedtime and her real lessons lay untouched. Appalled, the sensitive teenager tearfully gushed, “Oh! mother dear, I can hardly believe it, but I could not help it. I didn’t intend to deceive you. I did just what I promised you I would not do. I sat down with the full intention of writing nothing but my lessons, and before I knew it, these verses came and I had to write them. Just let me read them to you, then I will wash them off my slate, forget them and do my lessons.” The wise mother stayed her chide and listened.
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
And its last rays kissed the forehead of a man and maiden fair…
“Sexton,” Bessie’s white lips faltered, pointing to the prison old,
With its walls so tall and gloomy, moss-grown 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 spoke in husky whispers, “Curfew must not ring tonight.”
As Rose read on, her mother, too, felt transported across the Atlantic to a place she had never been. She heard of Bessie’s betrothed being falsely accused of spying and quickly sentenced to death – of Bessie, in a desperate attempt to avert the execution until Cromwell might intercede, plead with the Sexton to delay the nightly curfew bell. But the old man insisted on doing his duty. Rushing unseen to the top of the ancient belfry, Bessie leaped up and clung to the big bell’s clapper as the deaf sexton tolled the muffled curfew. When:
Oér 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,” cried Cromwell, “Curfew shall not ring tonight!”
Finished, Rose reached to wipe the slate clean when her mother cried out, “Wait a while, child, let them stay on your slate until morning. Never mind your lessons. I think I would like you to write those verses on paper tomorrow so that we may keep them.”
And thus was spared what would become one of the best-loved poems of the 19th century. That poem, which generations of children in one-room country schoolhouses and big city academies memorized and recited before audiences of proud parents, would find its way into countless anthologies and be translated into scores of tongues. And its Michigan author reaped enduring fame, but not a cent of profit.
Born in Mishawaka, Ind., in 1850, one of five children of a pioneer farmer, Rose immigrated with her family to Kansas 10 years later. A relentless drought on the plains spelled disaster for the western venture, and the Hartwicks retreated to Litchfield, where relatives offered succor. The family breadwinner eked out a living as a tailor, but poverty prevented the purchase of the books Rose craved even as a child.
Her mother marked early Rose’s poetic flair when she overheard her reciting original verses to dolls. At the age of 11 she began contributing poems about local happenings to the Litchfield High School paper. Rose’s poetic horizons broadened when she received a volume of Lord Byron’s poems for her 15th birthday. She memorized nearly every line of that great romantic poet’s work.
A neighboring physician kindly loaned copies of Peterson’s Magazine to the dreamy-eyed teenager who hungered for any and all reading matter. In the September 1865 issue, she encountered an anonymous article “Love and Loyalty” that so gripped her imagination and led to the creation of “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight.”
Fulfilling her mother’s request, she copied the poem into a little leather-bound blank book that held other of her juvenile effusions. And there it lay, known only to family members, for three years.
In the meantime, she had submitted a poem to the Detroit Commercial Advertiser. In an era when poetry occupied a far more important place in America’s everyday life, newspapers frequently included amateur verse. To Rose’s glee, the editor published her piece and wrote that, while he could not afford to pay, in return for additional verses he would mail a free subscription to the paper, a $1.50 per year value.
Proud that readers outside of Litchfield valued her work, Rose dutifully sent the Detroit skinflint a poem each week. But in 1870 she caught typhoid fever. Too sick to write her weekly piece, she forwarded instead the curfew poem. The editor published it in Rose’s usual “poetry corner.” Its dramatic appeal and joyous ending struck sentimental Victorian fancy in a way few other poems did. At a time when newspaper writings were rarely copyrighted, other papers, magazines and journals brazenly reprinted the piece. As paper after paper copied the ballad, students began reciting it, as well as teachers, preachers, professional elocutionists and platform orators on both sides of the Atlantic. It became a personal favorite of Queen Victoria.
Rose – who in 1871 had married Litchfield carriage maker Edmund C. Thorpe and traded the visionary quest of the poet for the practical reality of raising a brood of youngsters – remained hardly aware of her literary child’s amazing success. In 1879, A.A. Hopkins highlighted the poem with a biography of Rose in a compilation of newspaper poetry, “Waifs, and Their Authors.”
“Curfew” also found its way into dozens of the then popular recitation manuals. But bad luck in the form of illness and a faltering business dogged the Thorpes. They moved to Chicago in 1881, where Rose supplemented their precarious existence with a few dollars she earned from writing for religious and juvenile publications.
Then came a ray of hope. Lee and Shepard a prominent Boston publisher, wrote Rose seeking to publish “Curfew” in an elaborately illustrated edition. Naïvely relying on the firm’s fairness, she gave permission and even supplied an additional final verse. The unscrupulous publisher promptly copyrighted the entire poem in its name, and Rose never received a nickel of royalties for the bestseller.
The Thorpes moved to Grand Rapids in 1883. That year Hillsdale College awarded Rose an honorary master of arts degree. But that degree did little to enhance their financial plight. Rose continued to write hundreds of fugitive pieces and a score of mawkish books. None of those long-forgotten celebrations of “mother, home and heaven” proved very successful.
When Edmund contracted tuberculosis, the family moved to the more salubrious climate of San Antonio, Texas. Four years later they relocated to San Diego, Calif., where Rose remained until her death in 1939.
In 1935 proud Litchfield residents erected a monument to Rose. On a foundation of choice field stones from nearby farms stands the old village bell that for generations tolled tidings of funerals, weddings and fire alarms, and ironic Memorial to a famous poem about a bell that did not ring.]
To learn more about the life of Rose Hartwick Thorpe, and to read “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” in its entirety at Wikipedia, please HERE.