Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day // and barren rage of death’s eternal cold

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day // and barren rage of death's eternal cold

Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

O, that you were yourself! but, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give.
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination: then you were
Yourself again after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?

O, none but unthrifts! Dear my love, you know
You had a father: let your son say so.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 13

Stephen Greenblatt writes, in his book “Will in the World” (W. W. Norton & Compan, 2004), about sonnet writing as a “sophisticated game of courtiers” (p. 234), which became fashionable in the reign of Henry VIII and was perfected in the reign of Elizabeth.

“The challenge of the game,” he says, “was to sound as intimate, self-revealing and emotionally vulnerable as possible, without actually disclosing anything compromising to anyone outside the innermost circle.” (ibid.) The further a reader is removed from the writer and the addressee of a sonnet, the more vague and incomprehensible references to any specific characters or facts must be.

This is the tradition I claim for this painting, and so this story is very short. The sonnet, I feel, achieves one the first powerful emotional peaks in the sequence, especially in the lines which I chose as the title for the painting; and this painting draws on deeply personal references, which don’t really need to be revealed explicitly. They will be recognized by my “innermost circle”, but not beyond.

Sonnet 12: All silvered over with white

Lena Levin. Sonnet 12: All silvered over with white

Sonnet 12: All silvered over with white. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 12

Click here to listen to David Tennant reading this sonnet.

In this first “procreation” sub-sequence of his sonnets sequence, Shakespeare often invokes a kind of double vision, “double exposure” in modern terms.

Most often, the speaker of the sonnets looks at something blooming and green, but sees, simultaneously or instead, its future decay. Here, this double vision is reversed, in the way both more optimistic – despite the mournful couplet – and closer to my own world view: he looks at things past prime, at a wintery landscape, yet keeps in his mind’s eye their greener beauty and former glory.

I love this poem – the rhythm of its first lines sounding exactly like the clock that tells the time, and its clearly defined colour harmony: violets and greens all silvered over with white. On the surface of it, the “silvered over with white” attribute applies to sable curls only, but an attempt to translate the poem into painting reveals its more general meaning, merging the silvery streaks in one’s aging hair with snow covering summer greens.

Lena Levin. Chabot park . 20"×16". Oil on canvas panel. 2010.

Chabot park . 20″×16″. Oil on canvas panel. 2010.

The poem connected itself in my mind with my own visual experience, recorded earlier in an en plein air study from Chabot park, on a day both green and rainy. The rhythm of time, in this painting, is identified with the diagonal rhythms of the hills, with a road going into the distance, sometimes disappearing behind the hills; the visual link is motivated by the swing of the pendulum.

I changed the composition slightly, moving the violets around, silvering my greens all over with white, and making the trees more ambiguous as to whether they have lusty leaves or are barren of them; trying, in sum, to see the landscape with Shakespeare’s eye, which could see a summer and a winter, the beauty and the decay, at the same time.

Sonnet 11: She carved thee for her seal

Lena Levin. Sonnet 11: She carved thee for her seal. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012.

Sonnet 11: She carved thee for her seal. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 11:

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase:
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look whom she best endow’d she gave the more,
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:

She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

The poem is designed as several overlapping waves of waning and growing, decrease and increase, which enact rhythmically the interplay of its semantic contrasts:

  • waning vs. growth as a part of natural current of life,
  • wisdom and increase within this natural movement vs. folly and decay without,
  • beautiful, best endowed creatures, made “for store” vs. harsh and featureless ones, to remain barren.

The painting chooses its subject matter to match the basic organic metaphor of the poem, and translates the poem’s rhythms into three visual oppositions:

  • the interplay of organic upward and downward movements within the lighter diamond-like shape;
  • the general movement of the lightest plane of this shape upward and (nearly) away from the picture plane, into the distant future is opposed to the harsher, decaying forms outside the diamond, directed downwards, towards the bottom edge of the canvas.
  • the diamond-like plane of “wisdom and beauty” is filled with both lighter and more saturated, intense colours, set against the muted, darker tones outside it.

By the end of the poem, Shakespeare introduces another, inorganic metaphor for replication, the metaphor of printing/copying (which has the advantage of not implying any “waning” of the “seal”). Although this concept is subsumed within the repetitive rhythms of the major, organic, one, it is enacted in minor repetitions (“copies”) within the last lines of the sonnet: gave/gift, bounteous/bounty etc., as though the poem begins to print itself (this observation is due to Helen Vendler’s commentary).

This formal device is transferred to the painting in two ways: the juxtaposition of organic and inorganic metaphor is translated into the juxtaposition of organic fluidity of the flowers vs. geometric structuring of the picture plane; and several fragments of the painting nearly “copy themselves” in its other areas.

Sonnet 10: Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?

Lena Levin. Sonnet 10: Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?

Sonnet 10: Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love? 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012


For shame deny that thou bear’st love to any,
Who for thyself art so unprovident.
Grant, if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many,
But that thou none lovest is most evident;
For thou art so possess’d with murderous hate
That ‘gainst thyself thou stick’st not to conspire.
Seeking that beauteous roof to ruinate
Which to repair should be thy chief desire.
O, change thy thought, that I may change my mind!
Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?
Be, as thy presence is, gracious and kind,
Or to thyself at least kind-hearted prove:
Make thee another self, for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

The challenge of this sonnet lies in its focus the contrast between the visible and the real, the outside and the inside. It’s the first appearance of this motive, but it will reappear later on in the sequence, sometimes accompanied with stabs at the painters, who can only represent the visible, but not the real. Here, the gracious, love-inspiring appearance is opposed to the hate, even to oneself, that is lodged in it.

Pavel Filonov. Head. Oil on paper. 74 x 64 cm. c. 1935.

How can a painter, despite Shakespeare’s conviction of this being impossible, convey the real hidden behind the visible? In this translation, I am trying to apply the discoveries of Pavel Filonov’s “analytical realism”. This sonnet painting doesn’t refer to any specific work by Filonov, but is most straightforwardly related to his “Heads” series; I include one of his paintings from this series (“Head”. Oil on paper. 74 x 64 cm. c. 1935.) to illustrate his approach to dissecting and analyzing the visible.

Sonnet 3. Thou art thy mother's glass

Within my own series, on the other hand, this painting picks up and continues the motive of young man’s face borrowed from Titian’s “Man with a glove”. In contrast to the the third sonnet painting, where this face first appears, now it is distorted and broken by self-destructive hate.

Colourwise, the original idea of this translation was to try and convey the contrast between hate and love, central to the sonnet, as a contrast between different reds: a gentle, warmer red of love vs. a blood-like, intense red of hate. The most essential insight along the road was that these reds, the counterparts of love and hate in my visual space, aren’t that different after all. What sets them apart is the colours they are immediately juxtaposed to: a gracious interplay of purples and warm yellow-oranges of the background vs. stark, dark, cold greens and blues within the outline of distorted face.