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.