On VP Meeting Madison Arling, and His Sonnet xxi

Varjak Paul met Madison Arling underneath the old, giant oak in the center of Hopecliff Woods, just outside his hometown of Pencilbrook.

Any native of Pencilbrook, Ohio will tell you the same story: the old oak in the woods is older than anyone knows. Most would even say God Himself planted it. Why God would do this is another matter altogether, one not generally agreed upon. There are some who say the oak tree serves as a reminder of God’s eternal qualities. Others claim the oak tree is a reminder of our own mortality. Since the life of Varjak Paul fell into the lap of Pencilbrook, however, a new purpose for the oak tree has developed. It is now commonly asserted that the tree was planted as the perfect place for an eventual meeting between Paul and Madison Arling, who would become his wife.

The old oak tree is said to be the oldest living thing in the state. According to local legend, having a piece of the tree fall into your possession without provocation would increase your lot of wisdom, but to take a piece forcibly would lessen it. Stories have been told and retold about pieces of the tree coming into Varjak’s possession in his youth, however most are likely apocryphal in nature. Varjak did claim to have received a piece of the tree, but he never specified how, and no proof other than his literary achievements was ever offered.

As a preteen and teenager, Varjak spent a fair amount of time writing underneath the giant oak. Given Varjak’s general silence on the subject, there is no way of knowing if any of his more famous works were written under the old oak or whether the majority of work written there consisted mainly of experimentation and journaling. Varjak maintained very little of his professional output was thus inspired underneath the oak, leaving scholars and readers alike to speculate endlessly. However, it is perhaps important to point out that a tree similar to the one in Hopecliff Woods plays a somewhat integral part in the convergence of characters in the Madison epic. In any event, all are left to wonder as to any possible correlation between the meeting between Varjak Paul and the real-life Madison Arling, and the events in the Madison epic.

As Varjak told it, on the day he met Madison, he was nestled comfortably under the giant oak and writing poetry. He claimed the poetry he was writing that day was trivial and remained unpublished, but some scholars argue that Varjak’s 21st sonnet, published posthumously, must have been written on the very day of their first meeting, citing dubious literary “clues.”

It is generally agreed upon that when Varjak met Madison, he was already romantically involved with another young woman. The nature of the involvement is unclear, and cannot be historically traced. Scholars arguing for this poem’s status as having been written on the day Varjak met Madison point to the harshness of the poem’s first meeting/parting as parallel to the end of the relationship with the other woman. The apparent surprise upon discovering the owner of the footsteps in line 12 indicates that a different person had approached, and some say must have been Varjak’s retelling of the first time he saw Madison Arling.

However, the reaction (“’You...?!’”) by the narrator to the identity of his second guest would seem to demonstrate that he had in fact come in contact with the person before. Based upon this observation, most scholars conclude that C wrote the poem more with symbolism than reality in mind. The first meeting can then been seen as meant to display the end, however, harsh, to Varjak’s romantic life before he met Madison. The second meeting, and the second individual, represents not so much Madison herself, as the phase Varjak’s life was about to enter. That the narrator had apparently met the second individual before the poem’s events took place can likewise be seen as an indication of previous knowledge of this new phase, and the final line’s break with the previous relationships of the past displays a willingness to embrace whatever lies ahead.

Whether or not Varjak Paul’s Sonnet xxi was written on the day he met Madison Arling, it remains a standard poetic example of how we all might better respond to newness. If the parallels to Paul’s life are taken as true, the lesson is clear: the past can provide fruitful insight, but embracing the present and entering the future with open arms is considerably more important. As history tells us, Varjak wrote considerably less about romantic involvement before he met Madison; after the two came together, his literary production, especially romantic, hit the ground running. He had found his muse.

Sonnet xxi

this canopy of green envelopes those
who long for solace, stillness, or who, in
prayer, request the smallest things, like a rose
in bloom, or this great tree, or just less sin.

this tree, then, and this canopy, are but
the eyes and ears of God, and saw you walk-
ing, heard me calling, watched as our eyes met,
listened in, and smiled with joy as we talked

briefly. briefly, and you left me to think,
and be alone. after i cried a tear
or briefly, two, i set my soul in ink
some more, but what?–whose are those steps i hear?

i braced for your return, looked up, and–“You...?!

A moment, please,” i’ve other things to do.


Blogger Josh said...

It's nice to finally meet Mr. Paul! Elliat's told me so much about him. Speaking of Elliat, I assume he'll arrive Wednesday, May 4.

12:24 AM  

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