Sonnet 9: The world will wail thee

Lena Levin. Sonnet 9: the world will wail thee.

Sonnet 9: The world will wail thee. 20″x20″, oil on linen. March 2012

Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye
That thou consumest thyself in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children’s eyes her husband’s shape in mind.
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty’s waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused, the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murderous shame commits.

This translation into painting heavily relies on Helen Vendler’s observation [pp. 84-85] that the linguistic charm of the poem focuses on the symmetry of the word widow (widdow in the Quatro spelling), strengthened by the inherent symmetry of w, and plays with a flurry of related letters w, v and u and corresponding fluid sounds (some of these graphic relationships have been lost in the modern spelling: v used to be internally printed as “u”, and initial u, as “v”). For the painting, I’ve replaced widow with willow, the only other word with similar properties – or even better, since it retains the double l in the middle, a sound almost as “liquid” as w and u, and playing as important a part in the overall sound of the sonnet.

This change has two more advantages for my translation. On the semantic level, it gives me the image of weeping willow, naturally rhyming with the image of weeping, wailing, mournful world central to the poem. On the formal level, which really links language and imagery, the weeping willow’s shape is, in essence, a w turned upside down, with an additional play on the idea of symmetry.

Since the weeping, rainy sky had to play an essential role in the painting, I chose the lower golden section for the horizon line, giving me a plenty of space for the sky. As for the corresponding vertical (the other constant of the sonnet painting design), I first played with the seemingly obvious idea of using the trunk for it, but it worked neither on the representational level (the visible vertical trunk would break the image of the willow) nor on the painterly one. That’s why I focused on the other golden section vertical, suggested by one of the edges of the willow and an edge between colour areas within the willow, continued in the reflection. While the willow was painted from memory, the colours and lighting of the sky are done from life, from the skies above Fremont hills on two rainy, cold days of March, when the world indeed seemed to be mourning someone.

I kept the painting almost abstract, with under-defined, blurry forms – both in reference to no form of thee in the sonnet, and as a suggestion of vision of the viewer blurred by mournful tears.

Sonnet 8: Music to hear

Lena Levin. Sonnet 8: Music to hear

Sonnet 8: Music to hear. 20″x20″, oil on linen. March 2012.

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly,
Or else receivest with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: ‘thou single wilt prove none.’

Click here to listen to Prasanna Puwanarajah’s reading of this sonnet.

A light and whimsical poem, making a somewhat preposterous argument: that the young man’s failure to enjoy music he hears is due to a similarity between music and marriage (which he rejects, as ever); and invoking a more recurrent theme of Shakespeare’s, the relation between music and love. For some reason, this was the first sonnet that I genuinely “saw” as a painting, albeit not as clearly and distinctly as now, when the painting is complete.

The semantic motive I picked for this painting is central to the poem: the contrast between harmonious multiplicity (unified into oneness) – represented by the music, and singleness (turning into none-ness) – represented by the stubborn young man. This motive, I decided, would be enacted in painting almost entirely via colour, with a structured interplay of colours in the background opposed to the nearly black-and-white figure, which would thus optically recede into non-existence; almost as though it were not a human figure, but rather a hole cut out in the “musical” background.

Even with my primary focus on colour, I needed a figure, a gesture – something which would be easily “read” by the viewer’s eye as a young man listening to music with sadness and displeasure. In my mental search for this gesture, I recalled a scene – written, unsurprisingly, by the same author – which spells out the drama of the sonnet in somewhat more detail: the scene of Benedick listening to a song in “Much Ado About Nothing”. Here is this scene from the movie directed by Kenneth Branagh:


Lena Levin. Sonnet 8: colour sketch

Sonnet 8: colour sketch. 12″x12″, oil on panel. May 2011.

Whether you have clicked to play the scene or not, I hope you have noticed the source of the figure in my painting: Benedick’s (played by Kenneth Branagh) posture (even though I have always loved this movie, I was surprised by the remarkable painterly quality and expressiveness of this scene, which “translated” itself into a painting with natural ease). Here is my first attempt to sketch the future painting. Yet even for this smaller size, the colour vs. black-and-white opposition wasn’t clear enough and the multiplicity of colours in the background wasn’t structured enough to fully realize the original idea.

Piet Mondrian. Victory Boogie-Woogie. 1943/44 (unfinished).

Piet Mondrian. Victory Boogie-Woogie. 1943/44 (unfinished). Oil and paper on canvas, diagonal 177.5 cm.

The final inspiration for composing the background – both colourful and musical – came from Piet Mondrian’s geometry of colours. Although there is really no single reference image for this inspiration, I include his last, unfinished, painting, with a fleeting feeling of hope given by continuity of ideas in the face of artist’s work interrupted by barren rage of death’s eternal cold. Not only did Mondrian’s seemingly tight geometry give me the freedom to make the background I needed for the overall composition – it also allowed for minor adjustments in “translation”. For instance, Shakespeare’s enactment of presumed disharmony in the young man’s rejection of music, in clashing rhythms and sounds of the first quatrain, transformed into the lines clashing into smaller multicolored rectangles near the young man’s face.

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage. 20"x20", oil on linen. 2012

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way.
So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

The sonnet has a remarkably simple and straightforward composition, with its three quatrains describing three stages of the sun’s travel through a day. It’s made slightly more sophisticated by the “reversed” metaphor: the general context suggests that the sun’s journey is used as a metaphor of a man’s journey through life, yet within the narrower contexts of the quatrains, it’s rather man’s life that serves as a metaphor for the sun. Only in the couplet, the “correct” direction of the metaphor is reestablished and nailed, with an endearing naiveté, by the simple pun on “sun”/”son”.

This metaphoric structure, aided by mixed religious associations in the quatrains, creates a subtly subversive, nearly blasphemous, effect, putting the young addressee of the sonnet above all suns and gods in the overall hierarchy of universe: the god-like sun is like a man, and thou art like the sun.

It was clear to me from the beginning that my composition will have to rely on the overall curve of the sun’s golden pilgrimage to contrast the upward and downward movements, which would require fitting all three positions of the sun within the same picture plane. I also needed to try and “stop” the viewer’s eye from following the downward movement, in order to enact in the painting the basic conceit of the poem, the eyes converted and looking another way when the sun goes down (this conceit, by the way, while still sounding close to truth as far as human life is concerned, must be surprising to the modern reader/viewer accustomed to think of sunsets as something beautiful to behold, a sight to catch; commentaries on Shakespeare’s sonnets insist that this wasn’t the case in his time, when sunsets were strongly associated with death).

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

The composition I ended up with crystallized when I saw a photo by Joseph Siroker on Google+. Not only does it present the right balance and contrast of upward and downward movements, but it suggested a way to integrate religious references into my somewhat surreal landscape, so that the sky transforms into a church roof with an adequate degree of ambiguity. The edge of the imaginary roof also gave me a direct way to interrupt the eye movement between the highmost pitch and the sunset parts of the painting.

Sonnet 6: Leaving thee living

Sonnet 6: Leaving thee living

Sonnet 6: Leaving thee living. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair,
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

The sonnet continues the previous one, as though the second half of a single poem, re-interpreting the metaphor of distillation “back” to biological replication. Its overall rhythms and semantics are much more cheerful, focusing rather on the possible conquest of death via multiplication than in its (inevitable) victory.

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012.

The painting, therefore, also replicates the motive of the previous one – yet replaces the flowers which have lost their colour with the exuberance of multiple green leaves against the dark cold reds in the background. The leaves are the key to this translation – the key that unlocks the sonnet’s phonetic word play in leaving thee living and stresses its link to the botanical metaphor in the previous one (continued in the opening lines).

The occurrence of “leave” in this context is a particularly complex and witty one, since one of its possible readings (the young man leaving the earth) is primed by the preceding “depart”, whereas the opposite reading (the death leaving the young man where he is) is stressed by the phonetic closeness to “living”. This paradoxical ambiguity is stressed by the syntactic ambiguity of the sentence, since “thee” in Shakespeare’s language could stand both for a simple object (“Death leaving thee”) and for a reflexive one (“Thou leaving thyself”). This observation, pivotal for my “translation”, is due to Stephen Booth’s wonderful commentary to this sonnet. He also notes another, less prominent, link to “leaves” in the sonnet, through the arithmetical language of the second quatrain (via its use to indicate the result of subtraction).

Another metaphor picked up in my translation into painting is that of vial (which should contain the young man’s summer distilled). It appears twice: directly as the glass vase (replacing a more solid and opaque one of the fifth painting) and, less straightforwardly, in the treatment of the subject matter as a whole, which suggests that the flowers depicted might have been enclosed in walls of glass (note, in particular, the large blue highlight in the lower right-hand corner, which rhymes with the shape of the vase).

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012.

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distilled though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.


Click here to listen to Jemma Redgrave reading this sonnet.

One theory about Shakespeare sonnets is that the sequence started as a commission, in which the poet was engaged by someone to convince his young patron to marry and procreate, a topic which didn’t really touch Shakespeare on a personal level at the time. As the sequence progresses, two things begin to happen: the speaker’s love of the young man becomes more and more personal, passionate, and urgent; and he gradually gives up the idea of replicating his beloved through procreation. What takes its place is the idea much more significant to Shakespeare, and to his readers as well: the eternalizing power of art, more specifically, of his own poetry.

The fifth sonnet is the first time in the sequence where this idea is hinted at – it will disappear again in the next one, for some time, to return, much more explicitly and powerfully, later on. Here, what is suggested as a strategy against the winter of old age and death which inevitably destroys the beauty of summer is distillation. Shakespeare may seem simply to explore one more metaphor of procreation, but the process of making flowers into perfume – to be pent in walls of glass – creates something so essentially different from the original, that this metaphor leads him to a totally new meaning. After all, what the speaker was worrying about earlier in the sequence was preservation of the young man’s beauty (“show”); here, there is no hope of saving the “show”, only the “substance” may survive the coming winter.

In my series, the art of poetry and eternalizing power of language must needs be replaced with the art of painting and eternalizing power of colour, and this is the first painting which begins to play with this concept. The major challenge posed by this aspect of translation is, of course, the opposition between “show” and “substance”: in the obvious sense, a painting is always about the “show” (as Shakespeare himself would remind us repeatedly later in the sequence).

For this first instance of Shakespeare’s engagement with this opposition, I chose to translate the loss of “show” as the loss of colour, contrasting the left vertical golden section rectangle, with it’s fully saturated colour harmony, and the right third of the painting, in which some muted ochres remain only in the background, and flowers themselves leese their colour (and lose their lusty leaves) and retain only their basic geometry. On another level, this loss of colour can be read as flowers being checked with frost, oversnowed – thus bringing in the second, wintery, quatrain of the sonnet.

The painting uses Shakespeare’s mention of frame in the first quatrain to introduce the “frame within frame” device, which transforms the canvas from just a depiction of flowers into an image aware of its being a painting. The internal, slanted, frame is ambiguous between two readings: It may be the frame of the painting – so that the painting represents both flowers themselves and a floral painting being painted (flowers distilled), or it may be the frame of a mirror in which real flowers are reflected, thus playing on Shakespeare’s original metaphor of their substance pent in walls of glass.

Sonnet 4: Thy unused beauty


Sonnet 4. Thy unused beauty

Sonnet 4. Thy unused beauty. 20"20", oil on linen. February 2012

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tomb’d with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.

One interesting thing about this project is how the process of translating a poem into a painting varies from sonnet to sonnet. This one wouldn’t not let me alone for several sleepless hours of night before the image emerged with nearly complete clarity; next day, I had just to transfer it to the canvas.

Although the sonnet is obviously meant to continue the theme of procreation, its semantics suggests the possibility of a broader interpretation: the uselessness and ultimate deadliness of not giving in general, not returning to the world (“Nature”) what was “lent” to one to give further. So the image is a figure curled into itself — somewhat ambiguous between “having traffic with thyself alone” and a posture of deep despair which comes from being disconnected from the world.

On the pictorial level, I also tried to make the figure ambiguous between being three-dimensional, “realistically” integrated into its environment, and disconnected from it: so, for example, in some places the edges are treated softly, as though the figure is part of the outside world – whereas some other edges are decoratively hard, suggesting that the figure is “cut out” and flat, as though it doesn’t belong to the landscape at all. Similarly, although the colour treatment of the figure more or less keeps with realistic flesh tones, it is considerably “poorer” in colour compared to the wild dance of the colour wheel around it, in which it doesn’t take any part.

Sonnet 3. Thou art thy mother’s glass

Sonnet 3. Thou art thy mother's glass

Sonnet 3. Thou art thy mother's glass. 20"x20", oil on linen.

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live remember’d not to be
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

Click here to watch and hear Simon Callow reading the sonnet.


Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. 96 x 130 cm, oil on canvas. 1881-1882.

This painting is the most straightforwardly an “illustration” of the sonnet of all I’ve done so far, perhaps because it invokes a human image which directly appeals to my own sensibilities – the image of a mother who looks at her son as a mixture of a mirror and a time machine. The scene, as depicted, vaguely suggests identification between the viewer and the mother (reflected in the mirror from which the young man turned away). In this sense, the painting borrows its motive and its overall conceptual structure from Eduard Manet’s last unfinished painting, in which a large mirror behind the girl’s back reflects a man talking to her – be it the viewer or someone she thinks of.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, 1594.

Nicholas Hilliard. Henry Wriothesley, 1594.

I was briefly tempted to go with the current historical near-consensus with regard to the identity of the young man to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been addressed – and integrate into the painting, in one way or another, the likeness of Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. Yet if this really is Shakespeare’s character and addressee, than he was probably right when he wrote, repeatedly, that his verbal depiction of the young man’s beauty is more impressive and capable of making it eternal than any paintings of contemporary artists.  Be it as it may, this image doesn’t inspire my imagination, so I decided to borrow another character from roughly the same time.


Titian. Man with a glove.

Titian. Man with a glove. C. 1520. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm.

“My” young man, therefore, comes from Titian’s “Man with a glove”. I did not wish for the character of my painting to be a “copy” of Titian’s in any sense, but rather to be recognizably the same man – one of the most iconic images of Renaissance young and beautiful nobleman in the history of art.

In combining two “sources” from so different chapters in art history – the late nineteenth century impressionism and the height of Italian Renaissance, this painting opened a new path in my work with the sonnets, in which great paintings of the past realigned and rearranged themselves before my sight, suggesting themselves as visual counterparts of Shakespeare’s poetry, creating perceptible impression of a great ocean of art in which waves don’t really care about differences between art forms.

Geometrically, the double portrait reverses the structure of two earlier landscapes, putting the golden section vertical (interpreted as the edge of the mirror) on the left, behind the young man, whereas the less prominent lower horizontal is suggested by his shoulders, dissolving into darkness at the bottom right. This creates the smaller square in the right top corner of the picture plane, which coincides with the mother’s portrait.

In terms of colour, the painting runs away with Shakespeare’s mention of “golden” time: it plays on the contrast between a range of yellows and ochres and (mostly French Ultramarine) blues, set off by touches of red and the colder and brighter whites, linking together the two portraits with a more curvy movement.