Sonnet 1: “Thyself thy foe”

Sonnet 1. Thyself thy foe

Lena Levin. Thyself thy foe. 20"x20" (50.8 x 50.8 cm), oil on linen, 2012

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

This is the opening sonnet of the whole sequence, and the opening sonnet of the smaller “procreation” sub-sequence (1-17), in which the speaker of the sonnet plays the role of a “fatherly” figure, trying to persuade the young man being addressed to marry and procreate – and thus to ensure whatever immortality is accessible in this world. I am not genuinely interested in anti-childfree rhetoric as such, which means that content-wise, I rather focus on the accompanying themes invoked; even more so, I am interested in rhythms, composition, esthetics of the language – and how it may translate into the (modern) language of color.

The overall motive of the painting is due to the momentarily invoked reference to the injunction to increase and multiply in Genesis, that is, to the Garden of Eden. Hence the painting represents, more or less, a garden. Yet this garden is not really the garden of Eden – it is subverted by the refusal to procreate, described in the sonnet in terms of two conflicting metaphors – one is a flame/candle, and the other is a rose bud. So, the greens and blues of my landscape and the sky above it are subverted by reds and oranges.

The painting follows the overall design scheme I’ve decided to use to “represent” the structure of a sonnet: the composition is defined by a horizontal and a vertical at golden sections; here, the horizontal (the horizon line) is more prominent than the vertical, but the vertical is there, suggested by the possible pass through the mountains and by the location of the furthest bush/rose bud in the spiral.

Within this general structure, this sonnet follows a more specific compositional scheme: the first quatrain presents a calm, rather cold, overall description of the desirable state of affairs, which represents a human’s possible path to the distant future; the second and the third quatrains, much more urgent and nervous, enact the young man’s refusal to follow this path in two ways, both associated with (generalized) red. The fire, which makes a famine instead of abundance, and the bud, which refuses to open, “contracted” to itself.

In my painting, the first quatrain is loosely referenced by the grand diagonal curvy movement of colder and calmer colours from the bottom left to the remnants of blue in the sky, through the narrow pass in the distant mountains. The fire — the self-substantial flame – burns out the sky; and the bud that refuses to open is represented by the ambiguous spiral of rose bushes on the right, which look, due to their colour, increasingly like roses – and culminating the spiral in the distant bud, shown against the darkest spot in the background. In contrast to the green curve, which does find its way into the sky, the “rose” curve stops short of it, contracts into itself – instead of reaching the furthest distance.