The Power of the Human Voice
Maya Angelou once said, “Do read to someone. When words are infused by the human voice, they come alive.” I’ve experienced this first hand. I can still hear my grandmother’s dramatic voice. Whenever there was a power outage or a moment where waiting quietly was expected, she would recite a rhyming story. I was so impressed with my grandmother’s memorization skills that many years later when I was teaching Grade 7 and 8 students, I shared one of my favourite pieces from her repertoire. My students loved the story.
Today, Grandma’s ballad might be considered too violent for young ears, but I was only five or six when she made drying dishes fun by stopping to look me in the eye while roaring, “Curfew must not ring tonight.” Occasionally, she would stamp one oxford-clad foot or toss a dishcloth for effect. I was mesmerized.
It was my grandma who sat by the window with me, during a power outage, as the town elevator burned before my eyes. My newspaper publishing parents were at the scene, photographing the images. I asked grandma if she knew any rhymes about burning elevators. Her answer was, “No, but you could write one.”
When I was six, I won a five-strand pearl necklace for my recitation during a radiothon to raise money for polio treatments. Listeners may have donated because they liked my confident presentation. I think it was because I was a little girl, in a mostly adult competition, and many other little girls were very ill with polio at the time. My dad memorized my recitation piece while I practiced, and he could recite it right up until he died.
Now, I have four grandchildren, and each of them, when they were small, would develop the bobbing head syndrome whenever we went for a drive in the car. To avoid allowing them an untimely nap, I called upon my roster of memorized nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and limericks. It is best to be silly when keeping children awake. It is also good to throw in some surprising drama, like feigning exhaustion after racing through Peter Piper. The sillier the words are, the better they will keep the wee ones awake.
There is evidence to suggest that music and rhythm help people memorize. Many people can sing Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer but would have difficulty reciting it. The minstrels of the medieval days were likely a cross between a CNN newscaster and a rapper. It was a palatable way to keep up with current events. Our daughters learned their home addresses by saying them in rhythm, while I clapped the beat. Maybe, as we age, we need to create a rhythm to help retain our passwords and pins.
At least we should have a few good poems in our brains for those moments when we have to keep someone awake, are trapped in an elevator, or suffer a power outage. I include my Grandmother’s favourite recitation piece, just in case you want to commit it to memory yourself. If you, or someone in your family, have a memory about recitation, please share in the comments section.
While thinking about this poem, I Googled the title and learned that Curfew Must not Ring Tonight was written by Rose Hartwick Thorpe when she was only sixteen years of age. She felt inspired by a story she read in a magazine in 1865. When someone questioned her authenticity, she penned a final verse. The young author was unfairly treated in many ways, but I will discuss that in a future blog. I have included her additional passage, which my grandmother didn't recite.
Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight
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 the last rays kissed the forehead of a man and maiden fair,
He with footsteps 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 tonight.”
“Sexton,” Bessie’s white lips faltered, pointing to the prison old
With it’s turrets tall and gloomy, with it’s 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 ‘til sunset,” and her face grew strangely white
As she breathed the husky whisper, ”Curfew must not ring tonight!”
“Bessie,” calmly spoke the sexton…and his accent pierced her heart
Like the piercing of an arrow, like a deadly poisoned dart
“Long, long years I’ve rung the curfew from the 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 still must do it, curfew, girl, must ring tonight!”
Wild her eyes and pale her features, stern and white her thoughtful brow,
And within her secret bosom Bessie made a thoughtful 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.
As in undertone she murmured, “Curfew must not ring tonight.”
With quick step she bounded forward, sprang within the old church door
Left the old man threading slowly, paths he’d often trod before.
Not one moment paused the maiden, but with eye and cheek aglow
Mounted up the gloomy tower where the bell swung to and fro
As she climbed the dusty ladder on which fell no ray of light
Up and up, her white lips saying, “Curfew shall not ring tonight.”
She had reached the topmost ladder, o’er her hangs the great dark bell
Awful is the gloom beneath her, like the pathway down to hell.
Lo, 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! Flash her eyes with sudden light.
And she springs and grasps it firmly, “Curfew shall not ring tonight.”
Out she swung, far out; the city seemed a speck of light below;
She ‘twixt heaven and earth suspended, as the bell swung to and fro;
And the sexton at the rope, old and deaf, heard not the bell
But he thought it still was ringing fair young Basil’s funeral knell
Still the maiden clung more firmly and with trembling lips and white
Said, to hush her heart’s wild beating, “Curfew shall not ring tonight.”
It was o’er; the bell ceased swaying, and the maiden stepped once more
Firmly on the dark old ladder, where for hundred years before
Human foot had not been planted; but the brave deed she had done
Should be told long ages after – often as the setting sun
Should illume the sky with beauty, aged sires, with heads of white
Long should tell the little children, “Curfew did not ring that night.”
O’er the distant hills came Cromwell; Bessie sees him, and her brow
Full of hope and full of gladness, has no anxious traces now
At his feet she tells her story, shows her hands all bruised and torn,
And her face, so sweet and pleading, yet, with sorrow pale and worn,
Touched his heart with sudden pity – lit his eye with misty light
“Go, your lover lives,” said Cromwell; “Curfew shall not ring tonight."
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 love-light 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."
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