Sonnet 32: Had my friend’s Muse grown with the growing age

Lena Levin. Sonnet 32 painting

Sonnet 32: Had my friend’s news grown with the growing age. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 32

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,

Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.

O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
“Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:

But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love”.

Sam Alexander reading this sonnet

This is an interesting sonnet, worth re-reading to every person in the clutches of self-doubt: Shakespeare imagining a future after his death, where the “style” would progress so far that his poems would only be worth re-reading to his friend for their content (“love”), not for “their rhymes”. And it’s Shakespeare we are talking about, after all…

The painting combines an eclectic selection of books with an eclectic selection of styles, from near-realism, via impressionism, and towards bits of Mondrian in the background, as a commentary on “progression of styles”. All the stylistic play in the background notwithstanding, the still life still retains the suggestion of crowded, somewhat messy, writing desk of a scholar and reader, who might have paused with a glass of wine for a minute, to remember his deceased lover and his love distilled into rhymes.

The books are, from left to right:

Helen Vendler’s “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” and Dante’s Divine Comedy on top of it. An open book of Rembrandt’s drawings and my sketchbook partly covering it. Stephen Greenblatt’s “Hamlet in Purgatory” and T.J. Clark’s “The painting of modern life” with a fragment of Manet’s “Argenteuil” (1874) on its cover.

Reading this poem from the future, a future far beyond the one imagined by Shakespeare, it opens an an avenue for fascinating run of imagination: what would have happened, indeed, had Shakespeare’s Muse grown with the growing age? And yet, I just watched yesterday Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 movie version of “Coriolanus”, set up with tanks, and automatic guns, and whatnot, “in the place they call Rome”; a growing age still fully in the power of this rather extraordinary muse.

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.