When Life is Caught in the Act of Rhyming...
by Alexander Woollcott
No day was long enough for her. But to her husband Paris was an old story and one Sunday, after they had been to Notre-Dame for Mass, then to the bird-market, all a-twitter in the June sunlight, and finally (with detours to a dozen bookstalls) to the Deux-Magots for lunch, he swore he had seen all of Paris he could bear to see that day. Not one more bookstall, even if there was another only just across the way, all stocked, no doubt, with First Folios of Shakespeare, unrecognized by the witless bookseller, who would part with them at two francs each. Even so, he would sit him down at this table on the quai and take no further needless steps that day. From where he sat, obdurately sipping his fine, he could see her a-prowl on the riverbank, watch her as she hovered over the rows of books. At last he saw her pounce on one, wave it in triumph, haggle with the vendor, and come back with her purchase under her arm.
Just see what she had found for a franc! It was a flat, pallid, dingy English book for children, called Jack Frost and Other Stories. He inspected it without enthusiasm, implying by his manner that, personally, he would rather have had the franc. But she explained that, valueless as this admittedly insipid volume might seem to him, she was delighted to have it because it was a book she had been brought up on in her nursery days and she had not seen a copy since. For her it would provide material for just such a debauch of memory as I myself might enjoy if ever I could come upon a certain dilapidated volume of Chatterbox, from which I was wrenched by a harsh circumstance nearly forty years ago. But he was skeptical. Could she, for instance, recall a single story in the lot? Yes, she could. After a spasm of concentration, she fished up out of her memory the fact that one of the stories concerned a little girl named Dorothy - she could even remember the pen-and-ink illustration - a little girl named Dorothy who did not like her own nose.
This bit of testimony confounded him, for indeed there was such an item in the inane collection. There, you see! While she was basking in this triumph, he turned the dog's-eared pages in quest of further data. There was a moment of silence while her glance drifted along the river to the close-packed green of its islands and the tower beyond. This silence was broken abruptly by his admitting, in a strained voice, that after all he was inclined to think she had known the book in her younger days. He handed it to her, open at the fly-leaf. On the fly-leaf was penciled in an ungainly, childish scrawl: "Anne Parrish, 209 N. Weber Street, Colorado Springs."
Well, that is the story. How and when the book had first passed out of her possession, she could not recall, if indeed she ever knew. She did not remember having seen or thought of it in twenty years. She could only surmise by what seemingly capricious circumstances and against what dismaying, incalculable odds it had made its journey across five thousand miles of land and sea to take up its place on the bank of the Seine and wait there for the right day and hour and moment in June when she would come drifting by and reach out her hand for it.
Surely the finding of it gave her more deeply nourishing pleasure than any collector's item - any mere First Folio, for instance - could possibly have afforded her. Pleasure for her and pleasure, too, I think, for all of us. In fact, what interests me most about this story is a result of my own experience in hearing it and, from time to time, telling it. There is something so curiously tickling, so warming to the foolish heart in the phenomenon we call coincidence that the most indifferent stranger is somehow delighted by Anne Parrish's adventure, delighted and cheered by a strong and probably valid sense of good fortune.
I know that when I myself first heard it, I walked down the street in quite a glow, for all the world as if I had just found a tidy sum on the pavement. I had to keep reminding myself that my affairs were, when examined separately and coldly, in just about as parlous a state as they had been before. If the tidings of so uncommon a coincidence thus have all the tingle of good news, if they come to us with the force of a boon and a benison, it is, I suppose, because they carry with them the reassuring intimation that this is, after all, and ordered universe, that there is, after all, a design to our existence. When we thus catch life in the very act of rhyming, our inordiante pleasure is a measure, perhaps, of how frightened we really are by the mystery of its uncharted seas. At least, I know that when I first heard the tale, I carried it about with me as a talisman, more than half disposed to believe that when the oblivious Anne Parrish crossed the street to that bookstall, somewhere in fathomless space a star chuckled - chuckled and skipped in its course."
When you "catch life in the very act of rhyming" it's time to start looking about for the Poet.