Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun’s eye

Lena Levin: Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun's eye

Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun’s eye. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 25

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlooked for joy in that I honour most.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour rased quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:

Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Noma Dumezweni reading this sonnet.

The central image of this translation is taken directly from the most visual metaphor of the sonnet: a somewhat abstract representation of marigolds in the sun’s eye. The overall joyful colour scheme of the painting reflects the speaker’s expressed joy in his private happiness in love, contrasted, in its supposed permanence, to fleeting triumphs and public honour.

But just as the speaker of the sonnet boasts in the couplet about his presumed independence of the stars, its author knows full well that the private bliss of romantic love can be just as fleeting as public triumphs (and in the dramatic sequence of the sonnets, this turn of events is just around the corner). To boast that one can hide from the stars, is, as Helen Vendler puts it, “the most foolish boast of all”, and this meaning would be evident to Renaissance readers (Helen Vendler. The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets, p. 145).

So, while being held together by rhythms and rhymes, the sonnet’s argument crumbles and falls apart and, in a sense, buries its pride in itself. This is what I was after in this translation: being held together by colour, the picture plane seems about to fall apart structurally; and although the loss of joyful colors seems to be concentrated in the bottom third of the painting, it is also present within the spreading marigolds themselves. The self-destructive quality of the painting stands both for the deceptive nature of stars’ favours and for the speaker’s attempt at self-deception in the couplet.


My Shakespeare: Readiness is all

MICHELANGELO, Buonarroti - Pieta

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Pieta. 1898-1899.

This post continues the series I began about a month ago, “My Shakespeare”, and I want to begin to talk directly about one of Shakespeare’s deepest and most essential contribution to our worldview (or even, arguably, the deepest one): his construal of death, and of our relationships with the dead.

What if fascinating about the sonnets sequence is how unabashedly atheistic its speaker’s attitude to death is. For him, there is no eternal after-life, nothing beyond death’s eternal cold – in a striking contrast to, say, John Donne, or even to somewhat more complex and ambiguous approach in Shakespeare’s own plays (about which I will also probably talk somewhat later). It is even more striking when one recalls that the structure of the afterlife, and the ability of the living to influence their loved ones’ fate there, in the wake of their death, was a hot political issue of the time.

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

For the speaker of the sonnets – and he does talk about death, and the fragility and fleeting nature of human existence, quite a lot – there are only two paths to eternity: procreation, and art (which is to say, human memory). No other routes to salvation, no options of life beyond death. The immediate reason for this post is that, in the course of the last week’s work, I suddenly clearly understood how is that possible – not in our times, when atheism is more or less common, but in his time.

And the answer was: the speaker of the sonnet is always in the world of the survivors, the world of the living. In other words, he is not concerned with his own death and what will come after it; he only thinks of the future death of his beloved, and the empty world left behind. Whatever one’s specific spiritual beliefs, they don’t really matter from this point of view: we mourn independently of whether or not there is a promise of heaven.

Recall this mother in Michelangelo’s statue shown above? For all we know, if there ever was a mother who had no reason to mourn, who could feel assured that her son’s troubles were over and his glorious future assured, it is this one. But mourning doesn’t really know reason, and is not assuaged by beliefs, and so she mourns. Isn’t that the truth for all of us? Isn’t it the empty mortal world left by our beloved ones, not the future after our own death, that’s really frightening?

Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter

Lena Levin. Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter

Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 24

Mine eye hath played the painter and hath steeled,
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And perspective that is best painter’s art.

For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictured lies,
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.

Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;

Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,
They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

Prasanna Puwanarajah reading this sonnet.

This translation goes directly to the all-too familiar image, accessible when one gets through all syntactic twists and turns of perspective in the sonnet: two lovers looking into into one another’s eyes, to gaze therein on themselves – reflected in the other person’s eye, of course, but also, hopefully, steeled in table of their heart.

I wanted the plane surrounding the eye-painter in my painting to be both distinctly representational, reminiscent of a human face, but also, abstractly and geometrically, mirroring twists, turns, and fluid metaphors with which Shakespeare both creates and partly hides this image.

For a time, I was tempted by the idea of painting a visible reflection of the other person in the eye, but then decided against this all too straightforward approach, for two reasons. First, the power of a lyric poem lies in the ability of the reader to identify both with the speaker, by actually speaking the words, and with the addressee, by listening to them. Leaving the suggested reflection vague, indistinct allows the viewer to identify with the person looking into the eye, recalling their own moments like this and imagining their own reflection there. But more importantly, the invisibility of reflection is linked to the open question of the couplet: what’s in the heart?  We know not – we don’t see it.

Sonnet 23: Dumb presagers of my speaking breast

Lena Levin. Sonnet 23: Dumb presagers of my speaking breast

Sonnet 23: Dumb presagers of my speaking breast. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 23

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.

O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Niamh McGrady reading this sonnet.

A funny thing about this sonnet is that nobody seems to be sure whether it’s looks or books that are supposed to be the speaker’s eloquence and dumb presagers; each publisher and commentator decides for themselves. I give here, in effect, both options: the text above features looks, and in the Touchpress edition I link to for Niamh McGrady’s reading, it’s books. Personally, I suspect that, with all the play on reading the signs of silent love going on in the sonnet, Shakespeare might have planned our confusion.

Paul Cezanne. Mardi Gras. 1988.

Paul Cezanne. Mardi Gras. 1988.

Be it as it may, for the medium I am translating sonnets into, looks are, beyond doubt, more relevant. The key words, which anchor this translation, are dumb presagers of my speaking breast (that is, the actors of introductory pantomime plays, common in Shakespeare’s time – as shown to us in Hamlet‘s “play within play”).

Visual anchors for this painting are various depictions of Commedia dellArte actors in paintings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly Pierrot, of course.

Salvador Dali. Pierrot Playing the Guitar. 1925

Salvador Dali. Pierrot Playing the Guitar. 1925


In a sense, this painting references multiple variations on this general motive, but I include here only two which seem to me most essential, Paul Cezanne’s “Mardi Gras” (1988) (above) and Salvador Dali’s “Pierrot playing the Guitar” (1925) (right).

The three figures in my painting could be read both as three “dumb presagers” or as three versions of the same character, vacillating between being too strong and fierce and too fearful and imperfect, and so remaining silent. This contrast, central to the poem, is also reflected in differences in treatment of various parts of the picture plane: from flat on the right to overcharged with brushwork on the left.