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.

Sonnet 22: Bearing thy heart

Lena Levin. Sonnet 22: Bearing thy heart

Sonnet 22: Bearing thy heart. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 22

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?

O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gavest me thine not to give back again.

Diana Quick reading Sonnet 22

Semantically, this sonnet exploits one of Shakespeare’s core strategies: returning a common metaphor – so common as to be nearly devoid of its metaphoric power – to nearly absurdly “literal”, direct and straightforward level, so that the original meaning of the metaphor stands naked before the reader’s amazed sight, in all its primal power.

In this case, it is a romantic metaphor of “exchange of hearts” in love: the sonnet follows repercussions of such an exchange, just in case it really happened. The result may seem quite extraordinarily silly and superficial, at least for a modern reader, if not for painful tenderness filling the verse to the brim.

My painting exploits essentially the same strategy, but with the next-level metaphor:

Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill

– the rhythms and and color areas of the picture plane create an emerging image of a tender nurse bearing in her arms – what? Her babe? Thy heart? My love?

For me, it was one of the instances when the very process of painting clears and opens up the power of the poem, stripping away all hurdles and obstacles piled up by devouring time.

New series: My Shakespeare

MICHELANGELO, Buonarroti - Pieta

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Pieta. 1898-1899.

This post introduces a new category on this blog, “My Shakespeare”. I borrow this name from Marina Tsvetaeva’s essay, “My Pushkin”, which impressed me very powerfully as a girl (and Pushkin is, in a sense, the Russian counterpart to Shakespeare, albeit much closer to us in time). In this first post, I will try and begin to approach the core question – what is it all about?

Marina Tsvetaeva begins her story with a very early childhood, when she first met Pushkin, in the form of a monument, in the park where her nanny used to bring her, and her brother and sister,  for walks. She didn’t even know then that “Pushkin” and “monument” were two different words; as so often happens with small children, the words were glued together, unanalyzed, as a single concept. The monument was very, very large and very, very black; and as such, it was in a stark contrast with a small white doll she used to bring with her. She recalls comparing their contrasting sizes with her own self, and thinking that however many of such dolls one might put together, one on another, one wouldn’t get a Pushkin-monument. And even a hundred, or a million, such dolls together wouldn’t make one me, she thinks to herself; but – with a pride – maybe, just maybe, a hundred of me, put one on another, might just make one Pushkin-monument! The very concept of building such a tower out of one’s self must have made a powerful impression on me, because isn’t it what I am striving to do here, when all is said and done?

But what I really wanted to tell you about is a somewhat later memory, when she was about to see a sea for the first time in her life; she knew that her name, Marina, referred to sea, and she was in love with a poem, by Pushkin, about sea. The poem’s rhythms and words were so powerful, so magically enchanting, that she expected to be overwhelmed by her own, “real life” meeting with a sea – but the actual impression was nowhere even close to the image created by the poem in her mind. And so Pushkin’s sea, the one embodied and enacted in his poem, remained the real sea, even as she later learned to love “geographical”, real-life seas herself.

Why have I chosen Michelangelo’s Pieta as the image for this post? Because there is a distinct affinity, in my mind at least, between Tsvetaeva’s sea and Michelangelo’s grief of a mourning mother. At the time this sculpture was made he was in his early twenties – a boy, really; there was simply no way he could have known the feeling he so powerfully conveyed here from personal experience. And yet he had to know it – otherwise, this work would have been impossible. Where from? One theory argues that it was from “The Divine Comedy”, but whatever specific sources might have been, I have no doubts whatsoever that he got it from the ocean of Art, and made it his own – so much so that he could express it in this nearly unbearably real way, and thereby share it further.

(To be continued…)


Sonnet 21: A couplement of proud compare


Lena Levin. Sonnet 21. A couplement of proud compare

Sonnet 21: A couplement of proud compare. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 21

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,

Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.

O let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air:

Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

Tunji Kasim reading this sonnet

This is a sonnet about poetry, and so my painting is about painting.

The sonnet contrasts two kinds of poetry, the true and authentic poetry inspired by love, vs. the false and exaggerated poetry based on hearsay. True to himself, Shakespeare enacts poetry of the latter kind within the sonnet and then “corrects” it; this juxtaposition is highlighted by repetition of rhyme-words and rhyme-sounds of poem-within-poem in the “real” poem (in violation of general rules of Italian sonnet righting [Vendler 1997: 131]). So the overall concept of this translation into painting was rather straightforward: there had to be a contrast between the painting and a painting-within-painting.

Lena Levin. Unbearable strangeness.

Lena Levin. Unbearable strangeness. 12″x12″. Oil on linen panel. 2012

My first approach to this idea involved a juxtaposition of three stylistic versions of approximately the same still-life set up (with a nearly hidden internal reference to a painting of Adriaen Coorte’s. This sketch (now called “Unbearable strangeness) is shown on the left. It didn’t quite work.

To begin with, while concentrating on the contrast between how things are compared by different Muses, I’ve lost the contrast between what they are compared with, essential in the sonnet: the false poetry compares love and beloved with every fair and rare thing on earth and in heaven, the true poetry remains on the earthly level of humanity (any mother’s child). Secondly, I have lost the key (word) of heaven (repeated in every quatrain of the sonnet) as the ultimate standard of comparison, both in the colour harmony and in the (lack of) vertical movement within the “real” areas of the picture plane. It also turned out that repeating the same set-up in a painting-within-painting creates an ambiguity between a painting and a mirror, which doesn’t align with the poem’s meaning.

Therefore, the final painting approaches the same idea in a different way. Most importantly, there is now heaven with gold candles in its air instead of one of still-life versions: it opens up this “chamber” painting into a larger universe and defines both the vertical dimension of the painting and its overall color harmony.

Willem Kalf. Still life with Silver Jug.

Willem Kalf. Still life with silver jug. 73,8 x 65,2 cm. Oil on canvas. 1655-57

Secondly, the subject matter of the “real” still life and of the painting-within-painting is now different: the real one, with bread and onions is decidedly more earthly, the “painted” one, with its lemons, silver and china, more exotic and “fine” (rare and fair). I did, however, retain one common element, the wine glass, for the sake of purely stylistic contrast and to acknowledge the repetition of rhymes in the sonnet.

There is another important difference as well: in the first study above, all three versions of the still life were done from life; here, the painting-within-painting is borrowed from several still life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age (I show here the one most explicitly referred to in my work, by Willem Kalf). This introduces the visual counterpart of “hearsay” in the poem: the rival poets don’t invent their hyperbolic comparisons themselves, but borrow them from others (stirred by a painted beauty).

There are two other, purely visual, contrasts between the two still life areas:

  • Geometrically, the painting-within-painting is a vertical plane (corresponding to “vertical” metaphors condemned in the sonnet), whereas the “real life” set-up is horizontal, earth-bound, almost falling out of the picture plane towards the viewer;
  • Colour-wise, the painting-within-painting borrows its colour harmony from the heaven area and intensifies it as far as possible, that is, heaven itself for ornament doth use. In contrast to this, the real-life area of the painting is saturated with earthly reds and ochres.

All in all, it turned out that a humble still life can offer ample opportunities for creating visual counterparts for a poetic commentary on poetry.

Helen Vendler. The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets. Cambridge, Massachusetts &ndahs; London, England. 1997.

Sonnet 20: All hues in his controlling

Lena Levin. Sonnet 20: All hues in his controlling

Lena Levin. Sonnet 20: All hues in his controlling. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 20

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion.
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Simon Russel Beale reading this sonnet

This sonnet is a remarkable combination of playfulness and despondency. On the one hand, it jokingly plays around the impossible conceit of Nature pricking out someone who was originally designed as a woman because she fell in love with the person and wanted them for her own pleasure. On the other, it talks of what is construed as an insurmountable barrier, an ever-present distance between the speaker of the sonnet and his beloved.

As a painter, my attention focused on the somewhat mysterious idea of all hues in his controlling, which suggested that the painting should play around “all hues”, that is, all colors of rainbow. This is really a case of strange serendipity, I thought, because this sonnet, for obvious reasons, is at the centre of debate on Shakespeare’s “real” sexual orientation; yet the association between the acceptance of all sexual orientations and the symbol of rainbow certainly belongs to our times, not to Shakespeare’s. And yet he does mention “all hues”, without any clear reason. Building the painting around a rainbow also conveys the feeling of insurmountable distance, impossibility of real closeness, accentuated by the water barrier between the viewer and the rainbow with all its hues.

Bringing together and controlling all hues with equal, or nearly equal, intensity is not an easy challenge for a painter. Here, I tried to carry this idea further than just a rainbow – splitting the colors into multiple hues in almost every single area of the canvas, pushing it to the same level of playful absurdity as the original conceit of the poem.

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.



Sonnet 21: detail of painting

Detail preview for Sonnet 21

The blog follows its author for a (slightly more than) week long vacation on the Pacific Coast.

The next painting post will appear on August 1, 2012.

As a preview of what to come, here is a detail shot of the last completed painting, for sonnet 21.