Expend­ability is the byword for most of the Gilded Age’s news­paper verse, and the work of Rose Hartwick Thorpe is no exception. Although her 1867 poem “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” was of the most popular ballads of the 19th century, by the late 20th, it faded into obscurity.

Rose Hartwick Thorpe wrote her poem “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” in 1867. | Col­legian Archives

Thorpe began pub­lishing as a 16-year-old growing up in Litch­field, Michigan, through a gig with the Detroit Com­mercial Adver­tiser: she would submit one poem weekly, and the news­paper would send her a free sub­scription.

One week in 1870, Thorpe was too sick to pound out a fresh poem for the Com­mercial Adver­tiser. So she sent in a rough copy of “Curfew,” a ballad she had written three years pre­vi­ously for the local Litch­field paper. It puts to verse a legend about a woman named Bessie in the 17th century English Civil War whose bravery saves her Roy­alist lover from exe­cution at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Round­heads.

In a mimicry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thorpe orga­nized each stanza around the titular refrain, “Curfew must not ring tonight.” This trick hyper-inten­sifies focus on Bessie’s deter­mi­nation to stop the bell sig­naling her lover’s death from ringing at sunset. She suc­ceeds by climbing a bell­tower and holding herself against the gong. The lack of noise con­fuses the Puritan chain of command, and they wait longer than usual to proceed with the exe­cution. Cromwell arrives on the scene, and after learning what Bessie has done, pardons her lover. Amor omnia vincit.

A cap­ti­vating story, maybe. But a mess of a poem. Thorpe’s trochees flop along in jangly hep­tameters, each line stapled to the next with hack­neyed end rhymes. Just get a load of this stanza where Bessie con­fronts the bell ringer:

‘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.’

And on and on like this for about 70 lines. Readers loved it.

News­papers across the country reprinted Thorpe widely. The British press picked up the poem, and it reputedly became one of Queen Victoria’s favorites. The con­ti­nental European press took note, and soon, foreign trans­lators ren­dered Thorpe into 17 dif­ferent lan­guages — a major feat for an amalgam of empires rutted deep in the Hohen­zollern Mindset.

By the 1880s, the poem had become a staple of popular American lit­er­ature. It was widely anthol­o­gized and taught in class­rooms around the country. Thorpe con­tinued to pump out poetry, as well as children’s books — though never quite with the same elec­tri­fying success of “Curfew” — and used her lit­erary clout to promote lit­er­ature sup­porting modesty and the tem­perance movement.

Hillsdale College jumped onboard the Thorpe train in 1883 when Pres­ident DeWitt Durgin, impressed with the con­tinued pop­u­larity of “Curfew” in both Europe and America, rec­om­mended that the college award her an hon­orary Master of Arts degree, which it did that same year. Upon receiving the degree, Thorpe thanked Durgin and the college for taking pride in her local achievement.

“My heart rejoices in the thought that, while other states and other lands are sending tokens of remem­brance, my own has offered the kindest recog­nition of all,” she said. “Through you I wish to return my heartfelt thanks for this high appre­ci­ation of the poem, which was written in Hillsdale County.”

An illus­trated copy of “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight.” Wiki­media Commons

Fol­lowing the cer­emony, Thorpe pre­sented Durgin with an illus­trated copy of “Curfew,” ded­i­cated to “the future pros­perity of this noble insti­tution.”  

Thorpe remained involved with the college — although at this point she had become an editor in Chicago — and some­times per­formed readings in Litch­field and Hillsdale. She con­tributed her greatest gift to Hillsdale in 1895: the song for the ded­i­cation of the Alpha Kappa Phi memorial to stu­dents who fought for the Union in the Civil War. It was sung at the beginning of the cer­emony. Will Car­leton, Hillsdale College’s other famous poet of the day, con­cluded the event with his own com­po­sition, written spe­cially for the occasion.

Soon Thorpe’s ever-ascendent fame swept her away from the Midwest. In 1896, she and her husband moved to San Diego, Cal­i­fornia, where Thorpe embarked a number of lit­erary ven­tures. The most suc­cessful of these was “The White Lady of La Jolla,” a book about a local rock for­mation resem­bling a young bride drowned before mar­riage. She also pub­lished a popular com­pi­lation of her mor­al­izing children’s poems, “Ringing Ballads,” — no doubt great stocking stuffers for young Vic­to­rians.

By the turn of the century, “Curfew” had become canon in American letters. Thorpe was honored at Chicago’s World’s Fair Columbian Expo­sition in 1893. The com­poser Stanley Hawley set “Curfew” to music in 1895. The play­wright David Belasco (best known for being the first to bring “Madame But­terfly” to the stage) used it as inspi­ration for his 1895 play “The Heart of Maryland.”

“The picture of that swaying young figure hanging hero­ically to the clapper of an old church bell lived in my memory for a quarter of a century,” Belasco recalled about the first time he read Thorpe’s poem. “When the time came that I needed a play to exploit the love and heroism of a woman I wrote a play around that picture.”

The early 1900s brought even more acco­lades. Author Lucy Maud Mont­gomery quoted “Curfew” in her 1908 classic “Anne of Green Gables.”  Three silent films based on the poem were released. Two mod­ified the title to the more sonorous “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.”

Hillsdale College Pres­ident Joseph William Mauck took note, and hung a pho­to­graph of the poet on the second floor of Central Hall in 1916, among the ranks of other notable alumni (none of these pic­tures remain today).

The memorial to Thorpe in Litch­field, Michigan. Nic Rowan

Thorpe died of ill health in 1939, but her fame lived on. Only the next year, the near-blind New Yorker writer and car­toonist James Thurber pro­duced and illus­trated version of “Curfew” in his “Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illus­trated.” The poem also enjoyed con­tinued pop­u­larity in Hol­lywood, with ref­er­ences by Jack Warner in “Scrooge” (1951) and Katherine Hepburn in “Desk Set” (1957).

In the late 1960s, the folk group The Chad Mitchell Trio adapted the song into a ditty titled “Hang on the Bell, Nellie,” which sub­verts Thorpe’s moral tone to laud the sexual rev­o­lution. The final couplet cap­tures the song’s twist on Thorpe: “As you swing to the left, Nellie swing to the right / No matter when that curfew rings, we’re gonna swing tonight.” The band played the song on the popular variety show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, and nearly everyone who had gone to high school got the joke. It was the apex of the poem’s pop­u­larity.

But time, time is a ship on a mer­ciless sea, drifting toward an abyss of noth­ingness.

Schools don’t teach “Curfew” anymore. Hol­lywood could care less. And it’s not going to pop up on Jimmy Fallon anytime soon.

Only Litch­field still honors Thorpe’s legacy. All of the town’s public service centers are marked with a bell, and the fire department’s motto still reads “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” In the center of Litch­field, an eight-foot high bell-shaped memorial com­mem­o­rates the poet’s life and works.  

Even this shall pass.