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 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.