Sonnet 19: For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men

Lena Levin. Sonnet 19: For beauty's pattern to succeeding men

Sonnet 19: For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 19

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O! carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Patrick Stewart reading this sonnet

Michelangelo. DavidThe reference point for this translation is, of course, Michelangelo’s David – the image inevitably suggested by the very concept of “beauty’s pattern to succeeding men”, by the mention of carving, and, last but not least, by the powerful, truly timeless, rhythm of the third quatrain.

In the painting, David is imbued with the warmth of life absent from the marble, but subjected to destructive red brushstrokes of devouring time. Both are contrasted to the blue movement emanating from his sling, the eternal symbol of seemingly impossible victory, this time, against the fierce Goliath of time.

Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer

Lena Levin. Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer

Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

David Tennant reading this sonnet

I don’t have much to say about this translation into painting; maybe because words utterly fail me in the face of this poem. In short, I was looking here for something sunnier than the sun and bluer than the sky, and yet closer to us.

Sonnet 17: Stretched metre of an antique song

Lena Levin. Sonnet 17: Stretched metre of an antique song

Sonnet 17: Stretched metre of an antique song. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 17

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.’
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:

But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.


Diana Quick reading this sonnet.

Domenico Ghirlandaio. Piero di Lorenzo de Medici.

Domenico Ghirlandaio. Piero di Lorenzo de Medici.

For this work, I needed an “antique” painting to stand for the antique song of the sonnet: something not quite believable and somewhat stretched technically, and maybe even yellowed with age.

Since the Early Renaissance would certainly be somewhat “antique” for the future envisioned by Shakespeare, this painting loosely references Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Piero, the eldest son of Lorenzo de Medici. On the one hand, we don’t quite believe this depiction: the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent had in all probability been somewhat idealized by the artist, albeit for reasons quite different from Shakespeare’s. On the other hand, this portrait has that exact mixture of realism with the stylistic imprint of its time that I needed for a translation of this sonnet: it’s straightforward and somewhat naive colour harmony, elongated face with visible stylistic residues of the Florentine tradition to insert portraits of patrons into religious paintings.

In many ways, these qualities are exaggerated in my work, which adds to the young man’s face more of those heavenly touches we are not supposed to believe. I have wiped away Piero’s arrogance and his (realistic) heavy chin and enlarged the eyes to an unrealistic degree, making them more “in-your-face” beautiful and considerably more romantic and hard to believe.

The right vertical golden rectangle of my square design is supposed to stand for the depiction of the past surviving into the future, with its flatter and smoother colour areas and straightforward contrast of primary colours and black. The left third of the square, where the colours split into a chaotic vertical movement of brushstrokes, stands for the envisioned future with its doubts and scorn. The portrait of the young man, however, doesn’t quite fit into the past, but comes out from the painting-within-painting into the “future”, which allows the future’s split colours and untamed brushstrokes to burst into his perfect hair-do. Is it the future’s scorn? Or repercussions of Shakespeare’s success in his quest to make the young man immortal with his verse? Who knows…

Sonnet 16: The lines of life

Lena Levin. Sonnet 16. The lines of life

Sonnet 16: The lines of life. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 16

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this Time’s pencil or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.

To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live drawn by your own sweet skill.

Fiona Shaw reads this sonnet in the Touchpress edition.

In the dramatic plot of the sonnet sequence, we find ourselves at the crossing of three motives:

  • Procreation as salvation, or Erasmian abjurations to marry. By all appearances, the speaker returns to this motive in this sonnet, yet it is about to dry out completely, to be replaced by
  • Prohibited romantic love, with its mild craziness and enraptured adoration, supported and reinforced by
  • Immortalizing power of art, from the poet’s cosmic view of earthly affairs – we have just been there in Sonnet 15 (to which this one is directly linked with the initial but of the first line), but now the speaker appears to have doubts about his power to make the young man live “in the eyes of men”.

Although this sonnet seems to return to the procreation motive, we are just a breath away from (temporarily) forgetting mortality and different strategies of overcoming it and losing ourselves completely in the enchanted garden of romantic love. Even if the sonnet doesn’t mention romantic love explicitly, it is already filled to the brim with its sweetness and adoration. This is one reason why my painting picks the central visual image of the sonnet – maiden gardens yet unset (vaguely referencing Vincent Van Gogh’s orchard paintings, but without (visible) flowers).

Here, however, the speaker still pretends to discuss the relative merits of immortalizing strategies. The major contrast is between art and procreation, with a sub-contrast between poetry and painting (by the way, it’s the first time that the speaker identifies himself as a poet, referring to his barren rhyme). The contrast is played out in two “linguistic” games.

The first game entertains the opposition and affinity between pencil (meaning painter’s brush) and the speaker’s own pen, creating a pun on penis (as the context suggests, that must be the instrument of the young man’s own sweet skill mentioned in the couplet). Just as the explicit mention of barren rhyme and maiden gardens create the empty place for the listener to fill in with fertile bride, so the explicit mention of inadequate “artistic” instruments of immortality, pen and pencil, suggest the only (yet shyly unnamed) adequate one, helped along by the phonetic similarity.

The second linguistic game is based on the multiple meanings of line:

  • lines drawn by a (visual) artist, and
  • lines of a poem, and, finally,
  • the lines of life (i.e. genealogical lines).

This is the game I try to pick up and continue in the painting – stressing the linear qualities of organic branches (standing for lines of life) and attempting to match the magnificent rhythm of the third quatrain with the upward rhythmical movements of my lines.