Sonnet 34: It’s not enough that through the cloud thou break

Lena Levin. Sonnet 34: It's not enough that through the cloud thou break. 20"×20", Oil on linen

Lena Levin. Sonnet 34: It’s not enough that through the cloud thou break. 20″×20″, Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 34

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?

‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:

Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offense’s cross.

Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.

Adetomiwa Edun reading this sonnet

This sonnet continues the theme, and the metaphor, of the previous one, equating the beloved with the sun, and the betrayal, with “base clouds”. Yet the second quatrain begins an explicit transfer of metaphors to the domain of humanity, replacing the sun-covered-by-clouds metaphor with a string of “human” ones, with the betrayal of love compared, in quick and somewhat confusing (and confused) succession, with illness, wound, disgrace, shame, pain, criminal offense, and punishment. Nothing the beloved does can heal the pain of betrayal or compensate for the speaker’s loss – except for tears.

And so, the despair of the body of the sonnet is resolved by sadness in its couplet, its pearly tears.

My translation into painting acknowledges the gradual change of metaphors from cosmic to personal, from rain to tears, in its highly schematic human figure, turning away, dejected, from the sun breaking through the cloud. Yet the essence of this translation is in colour, in its interplay of cold greys, blues, and muted magentas – from stormy clouds to pearly tears – from despair to sadness.

Sonnet 33: Heavenly alchemy

Lena Levin. Sonnet 33: Heavenly Alchemy.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 33: Heavenly Alchemy. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

Adetomiwa Edun reading this sonnet

This sonnet opens a very direct and straightforward way of translation into painting, because it “pretends” to be just a landscape over the first two quatrains. The landscape appears first not as a metaphor, but just as a landscape, albeit described in somewhat heavenly and anthropomorphic language; only in the third quatrain, the metaphor is reversed, so the landscape turns out to be a strategy of dealing with human emotions.

Lena Levin. Tomales Bay: sunrise effects. 18"x24", oil on linen. 2012

Lena Levin. Tomales Bay: sunrise effects. 18″x24″, oil on linen. 2012

Lena Levin. Alameda: Rain and Sun. 24"x12". Oil on canvas panel. 2011.Lena Levin. Alameda: Rain and Sun. 24"x12". Oil on canvas panel. 2011.

Lena Levin. Alameda: Rain and Sun. 24″x12″. Oil on canvas panel. 2011.

To be more precise, there are two landscapes here, or a single one under different lighting conditions. This ease in combining two or more temporal planes in a poem is often a challenge for a painting translation, but it was easier here: as a plein air painter working in Northern California, I am quite accustomed to painting changing lighting conditions within a single picture frame (and a single plein air session). I include here two paintings from such plein air sessions, which served as the most direct visual anchors for this sonnet painting.

But I knew, from the very beginning, that just a landscape with mixed lighting conditions wouldn’t be enough here. The painting would have to combine a representation of a morning, both sunny and cloudy at the same time, with a decidedly non-representational curvy movement of blues across the painting, a soul in pain of forlorn love.

Working on the landscape itself, I lost the blue curve for a while, and even decided, at one point, that it was a mistaken illusion of my preliminary vision. And yet I couldn’t complete the painting before the “abstract” movement of blues from the bottom of the picture plane towards the sky re-appeared.

Sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

Lena Levin. Sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 29

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Patrick Stewart reading this sonnet

Vincent van Gogh. Vincent's Bedroom in Arles. 1988.

Vincent van Gogh. Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles. 1988.

The composition of this painting is derived from an amalgamation of two classical images, Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles (left) and Marc Chagall’s “The Birthday” (below). There is an obvious similarity in subject matter between two paintings: we see a barely furnished room of a poor man, distinctly in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, the room of the artist himself. Apart from the subject matter as such, there is this distinctly claustrophobic geometric grid of the mundane in both of them, and similarly skewed perspectives in how this environment is represented.

Marc Chagall. The Birthday. 1915

Marc Chagall. The Birthday. 1915

There is also, of course, the striking difference created by the presence vs. absence of love: Chagall’s beloved Bella is there in his room, and so he depicts himself like to the lark at break of day arising; Van Gogh’s is a solitary room of an outcast and hermit. In the geometry of Chagall’s composition, love disrupts the angular skewed grid with a graceful curve, which nearly carries the artist to heaven’s gate, out of the picture plane — there are no curves, not even a hint of an upward movement, in Van Gogh’s composition.

This is precisely the contrast that creates the tension of Shakespeare’s sonnet, which breaks the rhythmic grid of the first two quatrains with a slow, graceful upward movement in the third. Except, of course, it’s not an appearance of the beloved that creates this change: the speaker’s imagination, a mere thought of the beloved, is enough. And that’s why I don’t introduce any floating figures in the composition. Instead, the grid of the room is broken by an upward outburst of abstract brushstrokes.

The viewer, however, is invited to float together with the author, insofar as the perspective of the room suggests that it’s viewed from above, by someone whose imagination has just lifted him up from solitary confinement behind the writing desk, alone with his books and his drink.

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 18: Thy eternal summer

Lena Levin. Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer

Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

David Tennant reading this sonnet

I don’t have much to say about this translation into painting; maybe because words utterly fail me in the face of this poem. In short, I was looking here for something sunnier than the sun and bluer than the sky, and yet closer to us.

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage. 20"x20", oil on linen. 2012

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way.
So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

The sonnet has a remarkably simple and straightforward composition, with its three quatrains describing three stages of the sun’s travel through a day. It’s made slightly more sophisticated by the “reversed” metaphor: the general context suggests that the sun’s journey is used as a metaphor of a man’s journey through life, yet within the narrower contexts of the quatrains, it’s rather man’s life that serves as a metaphor for the sun. Only in the couplet, the “correct” direction of the metaphor is reestablished and nailed, with an endearing naiveté, by the simple pun on “sun”/”son”.

This metaphoric structure, aided by mixed religious associations in the quatrains, creates a subtly subversive, nearly blasphemous, effect, putting the young addressee of the sonnet above all suns and gods in the overall hierarchy of universe: the god-like sun is like a man, and thou art like the sun.

It was clear to me from the beginning that my composition will have to rely on the overall curve of the sun’s golden pilgrimage to contrast the upward and downward movements, which would require fitting all three positions of the sun within the same picture plane. I also needed to try and “stop” the viewer’s eye from following the downward movement, in order to enact in the painting the basic conceit of the poem, the eyes converted and looking another way when the sun goes down (this conceit, by the way, while still sounding close to truth as far as human life is concerned, must be surprising to the modern reader/viewer accustomed to think of sunsets as something beautiful to behold, a sight to catch; commentaries on Shakespeare’s sonnets insist that this wasn’t the case in his time, when sunsets were strongly associated with death).

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

The composition I ended up with crystallized when I saw a photo by Joseph Siroker on Google+. Not only does it present the right balance and contrast of upward and downward movements, but it suggested a way to integrate religious references into my somewhat surreal landscape, so that the sky transforms into a church roof with an adequate degree of ambiguity. The edge of the imaginary roof also gave me a direct way to interrupt the eye movement between the highmost pitch and the sunset parts of the painting.