Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Melodrama, anyone?

Ever wonder what people did for entertainment before there was television? Before there was radio? Before there were movies? Well, in the late Victorian era, they sat around weeping into their hankies reading stuff you would not believe, like the following unforgettable saga of Bessie and her Basil.

by 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 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 miss it. 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.”

(From Ringing ballads, including Curfew must not ring tonight, Rose Hartwick Thorpe, 1887)

I see the young Susan Lucci as Bessie, the young Brad Pitt as Basil, Winston Churchill as the sexton, and Margaret Thatcher as Cromwell.


  1. Oh, my! Margaret Thatcher as Cromwell? LOL

    It was not only in Victorian Days that "Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight" was read aloud. I well remember my mother (come to think of it, she was more than slightly Victorian)reading this to us -- impressionable children, we were, and I'm sure we wept. It's a sad story. I wonder if her ears rang after her ordeal?

  2. I'd rather read this than watch an episode of "Frasier" or Lord help me - "Desperate Housewives". At least you have to "work" to visualise it - to re-create the writer's vision.

  3. Didn't this sad story reappear as a (rather silly) song -
    "Hang on the bell, Nellie . . " etc.
    as you swing to the left, and you swing to the right,
    remember the curfew must never ring tonight."

    The bowdlerised version of the Victorian melodrama is HERE

  4. Putz, but it had a happy ending!

    Pat, I remember having to read this poem in school, but I am nowhere near as old as your mother!

    YP, I agree completely.

    Dr. FTSE, nice to hear from you again! I clicked on your link and I have to say that I have absolutely no recollection of ever having heard "Hang On the Bell, Nellie" although I do rememberthe Chad Mitchell Trio. It had to be based on this poem. The song, I mean, not the trio.

  5. Great that it had a happy ending :)
    marinela x x

  6. I doubt that Cromwell would have been so moved. I see that your flowery author actually lived to hear the radio at least.

    Rhymes, I always appreciate you, and enjoy your visits to my blog and my visits to yours.

  7. marinela, welcome to my blog! I saw the newspaper article in Albanian on your blog...are you from there originally? My wife's parents were both from Albania, one from Fier and one from Valona (spelling?). I enjoyed reading some of your poems (by which I mean (a) that I did not read all of them, not (b) that I enjoyed some but not others). You write quite well for such a young person. Come back to visit my blog often!

    Snow, I am old, it is true, but not quite old enough to know personally what would have moved Cromwell. But thank you for the kind words, kind sir.

  8. Well, even if you had cohabited the planet with Cromwell, you might not know as much about him as you would be able to learn today from your home in Georgia, USA. I don't know much either, but I got the impression in school that he was a hard, hard man. Are you thinking that there's a true story behind the poem?