Sonnet 34: It’s not enough that through the cloud thou break

Lena Levin. Sonnet 34: It's not enough that through the cloud thou break. 20"×20", Oil on linen

Lena Levin. Sonnet 34: It’s not enough that through the cloud thou break. 20″×20″, Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 34

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?

‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:

Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offense’s cross.

Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.

Adetomiwa Edun reading this sonnet

This sonnet continues the theme, and the metaphor, of the previous one, equating the beloved with the sun, and the betrayal, with “base clouds”. Yet the second quatrain begins an explicit transfer of metaphors to the domain of humanity, replacing the sun-covered-by-clouds metaphor with a string of “human” ones, with the betrayal of love compared, in quick and somewhat confusing (and confused) succession, with illness, wound, disgrace, shame, pain, criminal offense, and punishment. Nothing the beloved does can heal the pain of betrayal or compensate for the speaker’s loss – except for tears.

And so, the despair of the body of the sonnet is resolved by sadness in its couplet, its pearly tears.

My translation into painting acknowledges the gradual change of metaphors from cosmic to personal, from rain to tears, in its highly schematic human figure, turning away, dejected, from the sun breaking through the cloud. Yet the essence of this translation is in colour, in its interplay of cold greys, blues, and muted magentas – from stormy clouds to pearly tears – from despair to sadness.

Sonnet 33: Heavenly alchemy

Lena Levin. Sonnet 33: Heavenly Alchemy.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 33: Heavenly Alchemy. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

Adetomiwa Edun reading this sonnet

This sonnet opens a very direct and straightforward way of translation into painting, because it “pretends” to be just a landscape over the first two quatrains. The landscape appears first not as a metaphor, but just as a landscape, albeit described in somewhat heavenly and anthropomorphic language; only in the third quatrain, the metaphor is reversed, so the landscape turns out to be a strategy of dealing with human emotions.

Lena Levin. Tomales Bay: sunrise effects. 18"x24", oil on linen. 2012

Lena Levin. Tomales Bay: sunrise effects. 18″x24″, oil on linen. 2012

Lena Levin. Alameda: Rain and Sun. 24"x12". Oil on canvas panel. 2011.Lena Levin. Alameda: Rain and Sun. 24"x12". Oil on canvas panel. 2011.

Lena Levin. Alameda: Rain and Sun. 24″x12″. Oil on canvas panel. 2011.

To be more precise, there are two landscapes here, or a single one under different lighting conditions. This ease in combining two or more temporal planes in a poem is often a challenge for a painting translation, but it was easier here: as a plein air painter working in Northern California, I am quite accustomed to painting changing lighting conditions within a single picture frame (and a single plein air session). I include here two paintings from such plein air sessions, which served as the most direct visual anchors for this sonnet painting.

But I knew, from the very beginning, that just a landscape with mixed lighting conditions wouldn’t be enough here. The painting would have to combine a representation of a morning, both sunny and cloudy at the same time, with a decidedly non-representational curvy movement of blues across the painting, a soul in pain of forlorn love.

Working on the landscape itself, I lost the blue curve for a while, and even decided, at one point, that it was a mistaken illusion of my preliminary vision. And yet I couldn’t complete the painting before the “abstract” movement of blues from the bottom of the picture plane towards the sky re-appeared.

Sonnet 32: Had my friend’s Muse grown with the growing age

Lena Levin. Sonnet 32 painting

Sonnet 32: Had my friend’s news grown with the growing age. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 32

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,

Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.

O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
“Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:

But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love”.

Sam Alexander reading this sonnet

This is an interesting sonnet, worth re-reading to every person in the clutches of self-doubt: Shakespeare imagining a future after his death, where the “style” would progress so far that his poems would only be worth re-reading to his friend for their content (“love”), not for “their rhymes”. And it’s Shakespeare we are talking about, after all…

The painting combines an eclectic selection of books with an eclectic selection of styles, from near-realism, via impressionism, and towards bits of Mondrian in the background, as a commentary on “progression of styles”. All the stylistic play in the background notwithstanding, the still life still retains the suggestion of crowded, somewhat messy, writing desk of a scholar and reader, who might have paused with a glass of wine for a minute, to remember his deceased lover and his love distilled into rhymes.

The books are, from left to right:

Helen Vendler’s “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” and Dante’s Divine Comedy on top of it. An open book of Rembrandt’s drawings and my sketchbook partly covering it. Stephen Greenblatt’s “Hamlet in Purgatory” and T.J. Clark’s “The painting of modern life” with a fragment of Manet’s “Argenteuil” (1874) on its cover.

Reading this poem from the future, a future far beyond the one imagined by Shakespeare, it opens an an avenue for fascinating run of imagination: what would have happened, indeed, had Shakespeare’s Muse grown with the growing age? And yet, I just watched yesterday Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 movie version of “Coriolanus”, set up with tanks, and automatic guns, and whatnot, “in the place they call Rome”; a growing age still fully in the power of this rather extraordinary muse.