Sonnet 27: Like a jewel hung in ghastly night

Lena Levin. Sonnet 27: Like a jewel hung in ghastly night. 20"x20".

Sonnet 27: Like a jewel hung in ghastly night. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 27

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.

Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.


Sam Alexander reading this sonnet

Marc Chagall. The poet reclining. 77 x 77.5 cm. Oil on canvas. 1915

Marc Chagall. The poet reclining. 77 x 77.5 cm. Oil on canvas. 1915

This is about as close to a straightforward illustration as the sonnet series has gotten so far; probably too straightforward – as of now, I am not quite sure whether this painting is going to survive in this form, or be transformed into something more abstract. For now, though, this is the twenty seventh sonnet painting.

It’s very straightforwardness owes much, I believe, to the fact that my sonnets series has significantly intersected with my Chagall studies project (not a coincidence, either: one of the things I wanted to learn from Chagall is his child-like directness and playful seriousness).

Marc Chagall. Self-portrait with muse (Dream). 157 x 140 cm. 1918

Marc Chagall. Self-portrait with muse (Dream). 157 x 140 cm. Oil on canvas. 1918.

That said, there are two Chagall paintings which are related to this sonnet painting more closely (albeit loosely). One is “The poet reclining” (1915, above), which emboldened me to try for a composition with the main character confined to the bottom of the painting (although my poet is, of course, much less serene. The other is “Self-portrait with muse” (1918, left), which according to Chagall’s autobiography, “My life”, represents an actual dream-like vision of his beloved, Bella, as a white angel. The motive is the same as in Shakespeare’s sonnet: it’s not a long way from a white angel to a jewel hung in ghastly night.



Sonnet 26: To witness duty, not to show my wit

Lena Levin. Sonnet 26. To witness duty, not to show my wit

Sonnet 26. To witness duty, not to show my wit. 20″x20″. Oil on linen.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 26

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit:
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit;

Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it;
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought (all naked) will bestow it:

Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect;

Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

Edward Bennett reading this sonnet

In the visual vocabulary, a sonnet is a postcard. And this is as close as a sonnet gets to it: a brief and rather formal letter. In the developing story of my personal relationship with the sonnet sequence and with William Shakespeare, this sonnet is reinterpreted as a symbol of the whole project: my own attempt to _witness duty, not to show my wit_ to the author of the sequence. At the very least, this reinterpretation makes the originally not quite plausible conceit that the addressee has more wit than the speaker much more believable.

Hence the central image of the translation: a symbolic gesture of humble obedience from a figure standing on a book larger than herself.


Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun’s eye

Lena Levin: Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun's eye

Sonnet 25: But as a marigold in the sun’s eye. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 25

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlooked for joy in that I honour most.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour rased quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:

Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Noma Dumezweni reading this sonnet.

The central image of this translation is taken directly from the most visual metaphor of the sonnet: a somewhat abstract representation of marigolds in the sun’s eye. The overall joyful colour scheme of the painting reflects the speaker’s expressed joy in his private happiness in love, contrasted, in its supposed permanence, to fleeting triumphs and public honour.

But just as the speaker of the sonnet boasts in the couplet about his presumed independence of the stars, its author knows full well that the private bliss of romantic love can be just as fleeting as public triumphs (and in the dramatic sequence of the sonnets, this turn of events is just around the corner). To boast that one can hide from the stars, is, as Helen Vendler puts it, “the most foolish boast of all”, and this meaning would be evident to Renaissance readers (Helen Vendler. The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets, p. 145).

So, while being held together by rhythms and rhymes, the sonnet’s argument crumbles and falls apart and, in a sense, buries its pride in itself. This is what I was after in this translation: being held together by colour, the picture plane seems about to fall apart structurally; and although the loss of joyful colors seems to be concentrated in the bottom third of the painting, it is also present within the spreading marigolds themselves. The self-destructive quality of the painting stands both for the deceptive nature of stars’ favours and for the speaker’s attempt at self-deception in the couplet.


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 14: Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck

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

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;

Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

Click here to listen to David Calder reading this sonnet in the Touchpress edition.

When I began composing this painting in my mind, I thought it would be some sort of comic relief from the previous, rather painful, one. After all, a large chunk of the sonnet is filled with mocking astrology (“astronomy” in Shakespeare’s language), listing common types of its mundane predictions and using markedly convoluted grammar to convey its pompous language.

(As an aside, a modern reader might be tempted to assume that the preposterous “oft predict” in line 8, where both words seem to have lost their part-of-speech affiliation in an attempt to sound more important, is just one more difference between Shakespeare’s English and modern English. This doesn’t seem to be the case: this phrase must have sounded as strange to contemporary readers as it does to us.)

Yet I could not quite find my way into the painting from the “mocking astrology” angle; the essence of the sonnet’s meaning lies elsewhere: another human being, “thou”, as the largest thing in the universe, brighter than the stars, the source of real knowledge.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 73.7 x 92.1 cm. Oil on canvas. 1889.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 73.7 x 92.1 cm. Oil on canvas. 1889.

I used Van Gogh’s Starry Night as a starting pointing for the painting. On the one hand, the original is one of the most powerful visual statements of insignificance of our little, negligible human affairs (reduced to the bottom of the painting) – in comparison to the ever-present influence of the stars above. On the other hand, the reproductions of this image are so ridiculously overused nowadays – it seems to be everywhere, from postcards to jigsaw puzzles to place mats and coffee cups – that its use in the context of our culture seems to match Shakespeare’s mock of popular mythology of his. My painting, therefore, tries to invoke both the original and its endless reproductions.

Mikail Vrubel. The Swan Princess. Oil on canvas. 142.5 x 93.5 cm. 1900.

Mikail Vrubel. The Swan Princess. Oil on canvas. 142.5 x 93.5 cm. 1900.

The second image referenced in the painting is less universally known; it’s Mikhail Vrubel’s Swan Princess (1900). At this time, Vrubel was working on the set and costumes for a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, “The tale of Saltan the Tzar”; the Swan Princess was played by Vrubel’s wife, Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel (the opera itself is based on a tale-poem by Alexander Pushkin). It might not be clear from this image (please click it to see a larger one), but the Swan Princess has a star shining from her forehead, which is, I believe, what “attracted” her into my painting.

The semantic contrast between unimportant things astrologists claim to predict and the answers to the essential, eternal questions to be found in the beloved’s eyes is formally enacted in the sonnet via the opposition of rhythms in the first eight lines and in the last six. Just pronounce to yourself and compare two “parallel” opening lines, line 1 and line 9:

Not from the stars do I judgement pluck…

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive

Feel how the scurrying rhythm of the first line is replaced by a slower and more powerful movement of the second one? This is the contrast I’ve tried to “recreate” in the painting, in the opposition between its “starry” part and the “swan princess” part. And both the chaotic movement of heavenly stars and the vertical spire of the church below ultimately lead the viewer to the constant stars that are human eyes.

And yet, in the end, it did turn out to be a whimsical and mocking painting, yet not quite as I imagined it at first.