Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun’s eye

Lena Levin: Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun's eye

Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun’s eye. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 25

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlooked for joy in that I honour most.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour rased quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:

Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Noma Dumezweni reading this sonnet.

The central image of this translation is taken directly from the most visual metaphor of the sonnet: a somewhat abstract representation of marigolds in the sun’s eye. The overall joyful colour scheme of the painting reflects the speaker’s expressed joy in his private happiness in love, contrasted, in its supposed permanence, to fleeting triumphs and public honour.

But just as the speaker of the sonnet boasts in the couplet about his presumed independence of the stars, its author knows full well that the private bliss of romantic love can be just as fleeting as public triumphs (and in the dramatic sequence of the sonnets, this turn of events is just around the corner). To boast that one can hide from the stars, is, as Helen Vendler puts it, “the most foolish boast of all”, and this meaning would be evident to Renaissance readers (Helen Vendler. The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets, p. 145).

So, while being held together by rhythms and rhymes, the sonnet’s argument crumbles and falls apart and, in a sense, buries its pride in itself. This is what I was after in this translation: being held together by colour, the picture plane seems about to fall apart structurally; and although the loss of joyful colors seems to be concentrated in the bottom third of the painting, it is also present within the spreading marigolds themselves. The self-destructive quality of the painting stands both for the deceptive nature of stars’ favours and for the speaker’s attempt at self-deception in the couplet.


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 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 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 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 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).

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

Sonnet 5: Flowers distilled

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

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distilled though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.


Click here to listen to Jemma Redgrave reading this sonnet.

One theory about Shakespeare sonnets is that the sequence started as a commission, in which the poet was engaged by someone to convince his young patron to marry and procreate, a topic which didn’t really touch Shakespeare on a personal level at the time. As the sequence progresses, two things begin to happen: the speaker’s love of the young man becomes more and more personal, passionate, and urgent; and he gradually gives up the idea of replicating his beloved through procreation. What takes its place is the idea much more significant to Shakespeare, and to his readers as well: the eternalizing power of art, more specifically, of his own poetry.

The fifth sonnet is the first time in the sequence where this idea is hinted at – it will disappear again in the next one, for some time, to return, much more explicitly and powerfully, later on. Here, what is suggested as a strategy against the winter of old age and death which inevitably destroys the beauty of summer is distillation. Shakespeare may seem simply to explore one more metaphor of procreation, but the process of making flowers into perfume – to be pent in walls of glass – creates something so essentially different from the original, that this metaphor leads him to a totally new meaning. After all, what the speaker was worrying about earlier in the sequence was preservation of the young man’s beauty (“show”); here, there is no hope of saving the “show”, only the “substance” may survive the coming winter.

In my series, the art of poetry and eternalizing power of language must needs be replaced with the art of painting and eternalizing power of colour, and this is the first painting which begins to play with this concept. The major challenge posed by this aspect of translation is, of course, the opposition between “show” and “substance”: in the obvious sense, a painting is always about the “show” (as Shakespeare himself would remind us repeatedly later in the sequence).

For this first instance of Shakespeare’s engagement with this opposition, I chose to translate the loss of “show” as the loss of colour, contrasting the left vertical golden section rectangle, with it’s fully saturated colour harmony, and the right third of the painting, in which some muted ochres remain only in the background, and flowers themselves leese their colour (and lose their lusty leaves) and retain only their basic geometry. On another level, this loss of colour can be read as flowers being checked with frost, oversnowed – thus bringing in the second, wintery, quatrain of the sonnet.

The painting uses Shakespeare’s mention of frame in the first quatrain to introduce the “frame within frame” device, which transforms the canvas from just a depiction of flowers into an image aware of its being a painting. The internal, slanted, frame is ambiguous between two readings: It may be the frame of the painting – so that the painting represents both flowers themselves and a floral painting being painted (flowers distilled), or it may be the frame of a mirror in which real flowers are reflected, thus playing on Shakespeare’s original metaphor of their substance pent in walls of glass.