Sonnet 15: The conceit of this inconstant stay

Lena Levin. Sonnet 15: The conceit of this inconstant stay

Sonnet 15: The conceit of this inconstant stay. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;

And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Click here to listen to Fiona Shaw reading this sonnet.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 14: Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012

Sonnet 14: “Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck.” 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

Something strange happened here. As I was finding my way into Sonnet 14 (“Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck”), trying and rejecting various visual approaches to “mocking astrology”, the image that gradually clarified itself before my sight grew semantically closer and closer to this sonnet, with a beautiful human face engrafted against a cosmic view of stars and earth. I like to see it as a sign that I have really connected to the visual counterpart of sonnets’ deep underlying current of thoughts and feelings.

For this painting, then, I felt that I have to acknowledge the link between the two sonnets/images, to integrate it into the new image – and yet to shift the focus from the dominating presence of another human being, “you”, for a human observer towards the fragility, the acutely perceived inconstancy of our stay in this world.

In this sonnet, the speaker doesn’t mock an astrologer’s cosmic view of human affairs; he takes an even more cosmic view – from which he can observe both the stage on which the show of human affairs is presented, and the stars commenting on the show, and the debate going on between the global forces of Time and Decay. A mere human can directly witness this debate, this painful inconstancy of beauty, only if he looks at something with a life span much shorter than his – which, I believe, leads to Shakespeare’s mention of plants in the sonnet.

So these are two views my painting juxtaposes to convey the conceit of this inconstant stay: the cosmic view, mostly borrowed from the previous painting (and thus, indirectly, from Van Gogh) and the close-up of red roses. I have changed the landscape part of the painting, losing the stability of horizontals and verticals (intrinsic to the “human” view of a landscape) and adding a hint of a theatrical curtain to indicate its show-like quality for the cosmic observer. The roses, too, nearly dissolve into brushstrokes and color shapes – rather a momentary visual impression than a solid, stable “object”.

Sonnet 14: Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck

Lena Levin. Sonnet 14: Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012

Sonnet 14: “Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck.” 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;

Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

Click here to listen to David Calder reading this sonnet in the Touchpress edition.

When I began composing this painting in my mind, I thought it would be some sort of comic relief from the previous, rather painful, one. After all, a large chunk of the sonnet is filled with mocking astrology (“astronomy” in Shakespeare’s language), listing common types of its mundane predictions and using markedly convoluted grammar to convey its pompous language.

(As an aside, a modern reader might be tempted to assume that the preposterous “oft predict” in line 8, where both words seem to have lost their part-of-speech affiliation in an attempt to sound more important, is just one more difference between Shakespeare’s English and modern English. This doesn’t seem to be the case: this phrase must have sounded as strange to contemporary readers as it does to us.)

Yet I could not quite find my way into the painting from the “mocking astrology” angle; the essence of the sonnet’s meaning lies elsewhere: another human being, “thou”, as the largest thing in the universe, brighter than the stars, the source of real knowledge.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 73.7 x 92.1 cm. Oil on canvas. 1889.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 73.7 x 92.1 cm. Oil on canvas. 1889.

I used Van Gogh’s Starry Night as a starting pointing for the painting. On the one hand, the original is one of the most powerful visual statements of insignificance of our little, negligible human affairs (reduced to the bottom of the painting) – in comparison to the ever-present influence of the stars above. On the other hand, the reproductions of this image are so ridiculously overused nowadays – it seems to be everywhere, from postcards to jigsaw puzzles to place mats and coffee cups – that its use in the context of our culture seems to match Shakespeare’s mock of popular mythology of his. My painting, therefore, tries to invoke both the original and its endless reproductions.

Mikail Vrubel. The Swan Princess. Oil on canvas. 142.5 x 93.5 cm. 1900.

Mikail Vrubel. The Swan Princess. Oil on canvas. 142.5 x 93.5 cm. 1900.

The second image referenced in the painting is less universally known; it’s Mikhail Vrubel’s Swan Princess (1900). At this time, Vrubel was working on the set and costumes for a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, “The tale of Saltan the Tzar”; the Swan Princess was played by Vrubel’s wife, Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel (the opera itself is based on a tale-poem by Alexander Pushkin). It might not be clear from this image (please click it to see a larger one), but the Swan Princess has a star shining from her forehead, which is, I believe, what “attracted” her into my painting.

The semantic contrast between unimportant things astrologists claim to predict and the answers to the essential, eternal questions to be found in the beloved’s eyes is formally enacted in the sonnet via the opposition of rhythms in the first eight lines and in the last six. Just pronounce to yourself and compare two “parallel” opening lines, line 1 and line 9:

Not from the stars do I judgement pluck…

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive

Feel how the scurrying rhythm of the first line is replaced by a slower and more powerful movement of the second one? This is the contrast I’ve tried to “recreate” in the painting, in the opposition between its “starry” part and the “swan princess” part. And both the chaotic movement of heavenly stars and the vertical spire of the church below ultimately lead the viewer to the constant stars that are human eyes.

And yet, in the end, it did turn out to be a whimsical and mocking painting, yet not quite as I imagined it at first.

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.

Sonnet 9: The world will wail thee

Lena Levin. Sonnet 9: the world will wail thee.

Sonnet 9: The world will wail thee. 20″x20″, oil on linen. March 2012

Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye
That thou consumest thyself in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children’s eyes her husband’s shape in mind.
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty’s waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused, the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murderous shame commits.

This translation into painting heavily relies on Helen Vendler’s observation [pp. 84-85] that the linguistic charm of the poem focuses on the symmetry of the word widow (widdow in the Quatro spelling), strengthened by the inherent symmetry of w, and plays with a flurry of related letters w, v and u and corresponding fluid sounds (some of these graphic relationships have been lost in the modern spelling: v used to be internally printed as “u”, and initial u, as “v”). For the painting, I’ve replaced widow with willow, the only other word with similar properties – or even better, since it retains the double l in the middle, a sound almost as “liquid” as w and u, and playing as important a part in the overall sound of the sonnet.

This change has two more advantages for my translation. On the semantic level, it gives me the image of weeping willow, naturally rhyming with the image of weeping, wailing, mournful world central to the poem. On the formal level, which really links language and imagery, the weeping willow’s shape is, in essence, a w turned upside down, with an additional play on the idea of symmetry.

Since the weeping, rainy sky had to play an essential role in the painting, I chose the lower golden section for the horizon line, giving me a plenty of space for the sky. As for the corresponding vertical (the other constant of the sonnet painting design), I first played with the seemingly obvious idea of using the trunk for it, but it worked neither on the representational level (the visible vertical trunk would break the image of the willow) nor on the painterly one. That’s why I focused on the other golden section vertical, suggested by one of the edges of the willow and an edge between colour areas within the willow, continued in the reflection. While the willow was painted from memory, the colours and lighting of the sky are done from life, from the skies above Fremont hills on two rainy, cold days of March, when the world indeed seemed to be mourning someone.

I kept the painting almost abstract, with under-defined, blurry forms – both in reference to no form of thee in the sonnet, and as a suggestion of vision of the viewer blurred by mournful tears.

Sonnet 8: Music to hear

Lena Levin. Sonnet 8: Music to hear

Sonnet 8: Music to hear. 20″x20″, oil on linen. March 2012.

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly,
Or else receivest with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: ‘thou single wilt prove none.’

Click here to listen to Prasanna Puwanarajah’s reading of this sonnet.

A light and whimsical poem, making a somewhat preposterous argument: that the young man’s failure to enjoy music he hears is due to a similarity between music and marriage (which he rejects, as ever); and invoking a more recurrent theme of Shakespeare’s, the relation between music and love. For some reason, this was the first sonnet that I genuinely “saw” as a painting, albeit not as clearly and distinctly as now, when the painting is complete.

The semantic motive I picked for this painting is central to the poem: the contrast between harmonious multiplicity (unified into oneness) – represented by the music, and singleness (turning into none-ness) – represented by the stubborn young man. This motive, I decided, would be enacted in painting almost entirely via colour, with a structured interplay of colours in the background opposed to the nearly black-and-white figure, which would thus optically recede into non-existence; almost as though it were not a human figure, but rather a hole cut out in the “musical” background.

Even with my primary focus on colour, I needed a figure, a gesture – something which would be easily “read” by the viewer’s eye as a young man listening to music with sadness and displeasure. In my mental search for this gesture, I recalled a scene – written, unsurprisingly, by the same author – which spells out the drama of the sonnet in somewhat more detail: the scene of Benedick listening to a song in “Much Ado About Nothing”. Here is this scene from the movie directed by Kenneth Branagh:


Lena Levin. Sonnet 8: colour sketch

Sonnet 8: colour sketch. 12″x12″, oil on panel. May 2011.

Whether you have clicked to play the scene or not, I hope you have noticed the source of the figure in my painting: Benedick’s (played by Kenneth Branagh) posture (even though I have always loved this movie, I was surprised by the remarkable painterly quality and expressiveness of this scene, which “translated” itself into a painting with natural ease). Here is my first attempt to sketch the future painting. Yet even for this smaller size, the colour vs. black-and-white opposition wasn’t clear enough and the multiplicity of colours in the background wasn’t structured enough to fully realize the original idea.

Piet Mondrian. Victory Boogie-Woogie. 1943/44 (unfinished).

Piet Mondrian. Victory Boogie-Woogie. 1943/44 (unfinished). Oil and paper on canvas, diagonal 177.5 cm.

The final inspiration for composing the background – both colourful and musical – came from Piet Mondrian’s geometry of colours. Although there is really no single reference image for this inspiration, I include his last, unfinished, painting, with a fleeting feeling of hope given by continuity of ideas in the face of artist’s work interrupted by barren rage of death’s eternal cold. Not only did Mondrian’s seemingly tight geometry give me the freedom to make the background I needed for the overall composition – it also allowed for minor adjustments in “translation”. For instance, Shakespeare’s enactment of presumed disharmony in the young man’s rejection of music, in clashing rhythms and sounds of the first quatrain, transformed into the lines clashing into smaller multicolored rectangles near the young man’s face.

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage. 20"x20", oil on linen. 2012

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way.
So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

The sonnet has a remarkably simple and straightforward composition, with its three quatrains describing three stages of the sun’s travel through a day. It’s made slightly more sophisticated by the “reversed” metaphor: the general context suggests that the sun’s journey is used as a metaphor of a man’s journey through life, yet within the narrower contexts of the quatrains, it’s rather man’s life that serves as a metaphor for the sun. Only in the couplet, the “correct” direction of the metaphor is reestablished and nailed, with an endearing naiveté, by the simple pun on “sun”/”son”.

This metaphoric structure, aided by mixed religious associations in the quatrains, creates a subtly subversive, nearly blasphemous, effect, putting the young addressee of the sonnet above all suns and gods in the overall hierarchy of universe: the god-like sun is like a man, and thou art like the sun.

It was clear to me from the beginning that my composition will have to rely on the overall curve of the sun’s golden pilgrimage to contrast the upward and downward movements, which would require fitting all three positions of the sun within the same picture plane. I also needed to try and “stop” the viewer’s eye from following the downward movement, in order to enact in the painting the basic conceit of the poem, the eyes converted and looking another way when the sun goes down (this conceit, by the way, while still sounding close to truth as far as human life is concerned, must be surprising to the modern reader/viewer accustomed to think of sunsets as something beautiful to behold, a sight to catch; commentaries on Shakespeare’s sonnets insist that this wasn’t the case in his time, when sunsets were strongly associated with death).

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

The composition I ended up with crystallized when I saw a photo by Joseph Siroker on Google+. Not only does it present the right balance and contrast of upward and downward movements, but it suggested a way to integrate religious references into my somewhat surreal landscape, so that the sky transforms into a church roof with an adequate degree of ambiguity. The edge of the imaginary roof also gave me a direct way to interrupt the eye movement between the highmost pitch and the sunset parts of the painting.

Sonnet 6: Leaving thee living

Sonnet 6: Leaving thee living

Sonnet 6: Leaving thee living. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair,
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

The sonnet continues the previous one, as though the second half of a single poem, re-interpreting the metaphor of distillation “back” to biological replication. Its overall rhythms and semantics are much more cheerful, focusing rather on the possible conquest of death via multiplication than in its (inevitable) victory.

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012.

The painting, therefore, also replicates the motive of the previous one – yet replaces the flowers which have lost their colour with the exuberance of multiple green leaves against the dark cold reds in the background. The leaves are the key to this translation – the key that unlocks the sonnet’s phonetic word play in leaving thee living and stresses its link to the botanical metaphor in the previous one (continued in the opening lines).

The occurrence of “leave” in this context is a particularly complex and witty one, since one of its possible readings (the young man leaving the earth) is primed by the preceding “depart”, whereas the opposite reading (the death leaving the young man where he is) is stressed by the phonetic closeness to “living”. This paradoxical ambiguity is stressed by the syntactic ambiguity of the sentence, since “thee” in Shakespeare’s language could stand both for a simple object (“Death leaving thee”) and for a reflexive one (“Thou leaving thyself”). This observation, pivotal for my “translation”, is due to Stephen Booth’s wonderful commentary to this sonnet. He also notes another, less prominent, link to “leaves” in the sonnet, through the arithmetical language of the second quatrain (via its use to indicate the result of subtraction).

Another metaphor picked up in my translation into painting is that of vial (which should contain the young man’s summer distilled). It appears twice: directly as the glass vase (replacing a more solid and opaque one of the fifth painting) and, less straightforwardly, in the treatment of the subject matter as a whole, which suggests that the flowers depicted might have been enclosed in walls of glass (note, in particular, the large blue highlight in the lower right-hand corner, which rhymes with the shape of the vase).