Jan. 26, 2002

The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy


Poem: "The Darkling Thrush," by Thomas Hardy.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

It's the birthday of cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer, born in the Bronx (1929). In 1956, he started drawing cartoons for a new weekly newspaper out of Greenwich Village called the Village Voice. In 1986, he received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. In recent years, he has turned to writing books for children, including The Man in the Ceiling (1993) and A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears (1995).

It's the birthday of the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, born in Paris (1908). He learned the violin and enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire, but dropped out when he heard a recording of American jazz and realized that his passion was for improvisation. He began hanging out with street musicians, listening to every jazz recording he could get his hands on, and playing with Parisian dance bands. He started out playing piano, but during an engagement in the south of France was persuaded to pick up the violin on a set of tunes. He went on to achieve legendary status as a jazz violinist. In the 1930's, he joined guitarist Django Reinhardt in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, which sparked a revolution in jazz. He said: "We played jazz music with instruments that were absolutely contrary to the actual jazz at the time, which was all trumpets, saxophones, and all that. We played jazz music like chamber music."

It's the birthday of editor and children's book author Mary Mapes Dodge, born in New York City (1831). After the death of her husband in 1858, she turned to writing children's stories in an effort to support her family and maintain her independence. Her first book, Irvington Stories (1864), was followed a year later by the classic Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates (1865), about a poor but determined Dutch boy who brings help to his sick father. In 1873, she was tapped as the first editor of the new children's magazine, St. Nicholas, which under her editorship published work by Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. Young Kate Douglas Wiggin, later to achieve her own fame as the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, sold her first story to St. Nicholas.

On this day in 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter in which he complained about the choice of the Bald Eagle as the national symbol of the United States. Franklin would have preferred to see the turkey chosen as the national bird. He wrote: "…He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District…The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

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