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 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.

Sonnet 1: “Thyself thy foe”

Sonnet 1. Thyself thy foe

Lena Levin. Thyself thy foe. 20"x20" (50.8 x 50.8 cm), oil on linen, 2012

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

This is the opening sonnet of the whole sequence, and the opening sonnet of the smaller “procreation” sub-sequence (1-17), in which the speaker of the sonnet plays the role of a “fatherly” figure, trying to persuade the young man being addressed to marry and procreate – and thus to ensure whatever immortality is accessible in this world. I am not genuinely interested in anti-childfree rhetoric as such, which means that content-wise, I rather focus on the accompanying themes invoked; even more so, I am interested in rhythms, composition, esthetics of the language – and how it may translate into the (modern) language of color.

The overall motive of the painting is due to the momentarily invoked reference to the injunction to increase and multiply in Genesis, that is, to the Garden of Eden. Hence the painting represents, more or less, a garden. Yet this garden is not really the garden of Eden – it is subverted by the refusal to procreate, described in the sonnet in terms of two conflicting metaphors – one is a flame/candle, and the other is a rose bud. So, the greens and blues of my landscape and the sky above it are subverted by reds and oranges.

The painting follows the overall design scheme I’ve decided to use to “represent” the structure of a sonnet: the composition is defined by a horizontal and a vertical at golden sections; here, the horizontal (the horizon line) is more prominent than the vertical, but the vertical is there, suggested by the possible pass through the mountains and by the location of the furthest bush/rose bud in the spiral.

Within this general structure, this sonnet follows a more specific compositional scheme: the first quatrain presents a calm, rather cold, overall description of the desirable state of affairs, which represents a human’s possible path to the distant future; the second and the third quatrains, much more urgent and nervous, enact the young man’s refusal to follow this path in two ways, both associated with (generalized) red. The fire, which makes a famine instead of abundance, and the bud, which refuses to open, “contracted” to itself.

In my painting, the first quatrain is loosely referenced by the grand diagonal curvy movement of colder and calmer colours from the bottom left to the remnants of blue in the sky, through the narrow pass in the distant mountains. The fire — the self-substantial flame – burns out the sky; and the bud that refuses to open is represented by the ambiguous spiral of rose bushes on the right, which look, due to their colour, increasingly like roses – and culminating the spiral in the distant bud, shown against the darkest spot in the background. In contrast to the green curve, which does find its way into the sky, the “rose” curve stops short of it, contracts into itself – instead of reaching the furthest distance.