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.