Way back in 1867, a young sixteen year old lady named Rose Hartwick Thorpe wrote a narrative poem titled Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight. The poem, set in the 17th century, tells the story of a young lady named Bessie, whose lover, Basil Underwood, has been arrested, thrown in prison by the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, and sentenced to die that very night when the curfew bell rings.
Knowing that Lord Cromwell will be late in arriving, the young woman begs the old church sexton to prevent the ringing of the curfew bell. Unfortunately, he refuses. Bessie then climbs to the top of the church bell tower and sacrificially risks her life by wrapping her body around the clapper to prevent the bell from ringing.
When Cromwell later hears of her deed, he is so moved that he issues a pardon for Basil Underwood. The poem ends by affirming that, because of such sacrificial love, “curfew shall not ring tonight”.
The text of the poem reads thus:
CURFEW MUST NOT RING TONIGHT
Slowly England's sun was setting oe'r 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 haggard, 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."
I love this story because it is a beautiful picture of sacrificial love. The Biblical word for such love is “Agape”. One of four such terms for love in the Koine Greek language of the New Testament world, it greatly transcends each of the other forms of love and reigns supremely above them. Indeed, for this reason, in I Corinthians 12:31, the Apostle Paul calls “Agape” love “the most excellent way”.
In the minds of the ancient Greeks, “Eros” represented marital love, “Storge” represented parental love, and “Philia” represented fraternal love. Each of these had their place in society. Without them, the bonds of society could not be held secure. But they were each still inferior to “Agape”, which is the term underlying the English translation of love in 259 of the 313 occurrences in the New Testament.
What makes “Agape” superior to other forms of love? Why does the Bible place such a premium on this type of love? Because “Agape” love alone is sacrificial love. “Agape” love is not self-seeking. It alone is employed entirely on behalf of the person being loved. The technical definition is thus: “self-denial in order to seek the highest good of the other”.
The Apostle Paul spends the entire thirteenth chapter of his first New Testament letter to the Corinthians listing 15 qualities of this supreme form of love, and then challenges each of us in the first verse of chapter fourteen to follow this way of love passionately.
After all, this is exactly what sort of love Jesus employed on our behalf when He laid down his life at Calvary. As the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:7, Jesus “emptied himself” on our behalf. That is to say, He gave all He had to give. He literally laid down His life in order that we ourselves might have life.
Jesus once said (in the Gospel of John 15:13), “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Admittedly, we may not ever be called upon physically to lay down our lives. To be sure, some will be; but most will not.
Nonetheless, the principle remains the same - if we truly love others, we will gladly be willing to sacrifice on their behalf! And that is why I so love the story above. Bessie was prepared to do the very same thing for the one she loved.
So, “How do I love thee?” Let me count the ways I have been willing to sacrifice on your behalf. Then, and only then, we will both have our answer!
See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curfew_Must_Not_Ring_Tonight.