Sonnet 31: Thou art the grave where buried love doth live

Lena Levin. Sonnet 31: Thou art the grave where buried love doth live

Sonnet 31: Thou art the grave where buried love doth live. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 31

Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposed dead,
And there reigns love and all love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buried.

How many a holy and obsequious tear
Hath dear religious love stolen from mine eye
As interest of the dead, which now appear
But things removed that hidden in thee lie!

Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is thine alone:

Their images I loved I view in thee,
And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.

Kate Fleetwood reading this sonnet

As a romantic address, it is a strange poem, isn’t it?

Although apparently an expression of love, the beloved is strikingly absent from the speaker’s world view. Maybe not absent, but transparent (transparent enough for the speaker to see all his lovers gone within); a vessel devoid of its own content, but filled with the speaker’s love and loving parts; cherished not for himself, but as love’s burial place.

For all its strangeness, we must admit the truth and almost involuntary honesty of it: isn’t this how romantic love works, filling (or replacing) its object with the lover’s imagination, seeing only one’s own emotions instead of the human being towards whom they are supposed to be directed? Loving one’s own love, rather than one’s beloved?

Even if we take this as a straightforward expression of the strength of the speaker’s feelings, which revive for him all his past loves in the person of his present one, the central metaphor of the poem is still decidedly strange. Thou art the grave where buried love doth live? Can you imagine saying (or hearing, come to this) something along these lines as an expression of deepest love?

The image of burial place colours the whole sonnet in sadness and tears; it sounds like mourning, rather than a celebration of love revived; and the idea of buried love still living in its grave seems to have come from a ghost story, not from the story of resurrection.

Marc Chagall. The Green Violinist. 1924

Marc Chagall. The Green Violinist. 1924

There were two visual sources at the conception of this painting. The first one might come as a surprise to you: it’s “The Green Violinist” by Marc Chagall. On the semantic level, this painting has a decidedly nostalgic quality, the rhythms and colours of mourning – if not for the lovers gone, then for the native land and family lost. On the formal level, it strikes me with the bold opposition between intense colours in the figure and the virtual lack of colour in the background: in spite of suggestions of landscape, the figure is placed as though in vacuum, in a space devoid of warmth, energy, matter.

What I’ve tried to do here is to revert this effect, while keeping the rhythms and overall colour harmony close to Chagall’s painting: that is to say, it’s now the figure that is virtually devoid of colour, warmth and matter – no more than slightest hints of the colours of its surroundings.

The second visual source is somewhat more vague, albeit more directly visible in the painting: some general impressions of cemeteries, pyramidal burial mounts, chapel windows. The figure is enclosed in a pyramid; it nearly is a pyramid (thou art the grave), albeit a transparent one, mirroring the rhythms of life around it.

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 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 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 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 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 4: Thy unused beauty


Sonnet 4. Thy unused beauty

Sonnet 4. Thy unused beauty. 20"20", oil on linen. February 2012

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tomb’d with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.

One interesting thing about this project is how the process of translating a poem into a painting varies from sonnet to sonnet. This one wouldn’t not let me alone for several sleepless hours of night before the image emerged with nearly complete clarity; next day, I had just to transfer it to the canvas.

Although the sonnet is obviously meant to continue the theme of procreation, its semantics suggests the possibility of a broader interpretation: the uselessness and ultimate deadliness of not giving in general, not returning to the world (“Nature”) what was “lent” to one to give further. So the image is a figure curled into itself — somewhat ambiguous between “having traffic with thyself alone” and a posture of deep despair which comes from being disconnected from the world.

On the pictorial level, I also tried to make the figure ambiguous between being three-dimensional, “realistically” integrated into its environment, and disconnected from it: so, for example, in some places the edges are treated softly, as though the figure is part of the outside world – whereas some other edges are decoratively hard, suggesting that the figure is “cut out” and flat, as though it doesn’t belong to the landscape at all. Similarly, although the colour treatment of the figure more or less keeps with realistic flesh tones, it is considerably “poorer” in colour compared to the wild dance of the colour wheel around it, in which it doesn’t take any part.