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 3. Thou art thy mother’s glass

Sonnet 3. Thou art thy mother's glass

Sonnet 3. Thou art thy mother's glass. 20"x20", oil on linen.

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live remember’d not to be
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

Click here to watch and hear Simon Callow reading the sonnet.


Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. 96 x 130 cm, oil on canvas. 1881-1882.

This painting is the most straightforwardly an “illustration” of the sonnet of all I’ve done so far, perhaps because it invokes a human image which directly appeals to my own sensibilities – the image of a mother who looks at her son as a mixture of a mirror and a time machine. The scene, as depicted, vaguely suggests identification between the viewer and the mother (reflected in the mirror from which the young man turned away). In this sense, the painting borrows its motive and its overall conceptual structure from Eduard Manet’s last unfinished painting, in which a large mirror behind the girl’s back reflects a man talking to her – be it the viewer or someone she thinks of.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, 1594.

Nicholas Hilliard. Henry Wriothesley, 1594.

I was briefly tempted to go with the current historical near-consensus with regard to the identity of the young man to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been addressed – and integrate into the painting, in one way or another, the likeness of Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. Yet if this really is Shakespeare’s character and addressee, than he was probably right when he wrote, repeatedly, that his verbal depiction of the young man’s beauty is more impressive and capable of making it eternal than any paintings of contemporary artists.  Be it as it may, this image doesn’t inspire my imagination, so I decided to borrow another character from roughly the same time.


Titian. Man with a glove.

Titian. Man with a glove. C. 1520. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm.

“My” young man, therefore, comes from Titian’s “Man with a glove”. I did not wish for the character of my painting to be a “copy” of Titian’s in any sense, but rather to be recognizably the same man – one of the most iconic images of Renaissance young and beautiful nobleman in the history of art.

In combining two “sources” from so different chapters in art history – the late nineteenth century impressionism and the height of Italian Renaissance, this painting opened a new path in my work with the sonnets, in which great paintings of the past realigned and rearranged themselves before my sight, suggesting themselves as visual counterparts of Shakespeare’s poetry, creating perceptible impression of a great ocean of art in which waves don’t really care about differences between art forms.

Geometrically, the double portrait reverses the structure of two earlier landscapes, putting the golden section vertical (interpreted as the edge of the mirror) on the left, behind the young man, whereas the less prominent lower horizontal is suggested by his shoulders, dissolving into darkness at the bottom right. This creates the smaller square in the right top corner of the picture plane, which coincides with the mother’s portrait.

In terms of colour, the painting runs away with Shakespeare’s mention of “golden” time: it plays on the contrast between a range of yellows and ochres and (mostly French Ultramarine) blues, set off by touches of red and the colder and brighter whites, linking together the two portraits with a more curvy movement.

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.