Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day // and barren rage of death’s eternal cold

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day // and barren rage of death's eternal cold

Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

O, that you were yourself! but, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give.
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination: then you were
Yourself again after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?

O, none but unthrifts! Dear my love, you know
You had a father: let your son say so.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 13

Stephen Greenblatt writes, in his book “Will in the World” (W. W. Norton & Compan, 2004), about sonnet writing as a “sophisticated game of courtiers” (p. 234), which became fashionable in the reign of Henry VIII and was perfected in the reign of Elizabeth.

“The challenge of the game,” he says, “was to sound as intimate, self-revealing and emotionally vulnerable as possible, without actually disclosing anything compromising to anyone outside the innermost circle.” (ibid.) The further a reader is removed from the writer and the addressee of a sonnet, the more vague and incomprehensible references to any specific characters or facts must be.

This is the tradition I claim for this painting, and so this story is very short. The sonnet, I feel, achieves one the first powerful emotional peaks in the sequence, especially in the lines which I chose as the title for the painting; and this painting draws on deeply personal references, which don’t really need to be revealed explicitly. They will be recognized by my “innermost circle”, but not beyond.

Sonnet 12: All silvered over with white

Lena Levin. Sonnet 12: All silvered over with white

Sonnet 12: All silvered over with white. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 12

Click here to listen to David Tennant reading this sonnet.

In this first “procreation” sub-sequence of his sonnets sequence, Shakespeare often invokes a kind of double vision, “double exposure” in modern terms.

Most often, the speaker of the sonnets looks at something blooming and green, but sees, simultaneously or instead, its future decay. Here, this double vision is reversed, in the way both more optimistic – despite the mournful couplet – and closer to my own world view: he looks at things past prime, at a wintery landscape, yet keeps in his mind’s eye their greener beauty and former glory.

I love this poem – the rhythm of its first lines sounding exactly like the clock that tells the time, and its clearly defined colour harmony: violets and greens all silvered over with white. On the surface of it, the “silvered over with white” attribute applies to sable curls only, but an attempt to translate the poem into painting reveals its more general meaning, merging the silvery streaks in one’s aging hair with snow covering summer greens.

Lena Levin. Chabot park . 20"×16". Oil on canvas panel. 2010.

Chabot park . 20″×16″. Oil on canvas panel. 2010.

The poem connected itself in my mind with my own visual experience, recorded earlier in an en plein air study from Chabot park, on a day both green and rainy. The rhythm of time, in this painting, is identified with the diagonal rhythms of the hills, with a road going into the distance, sometimes disappearing behind the hills; the visual link is motivated by the swing of the pendulum.

I changed the composition slightly, moving the violets around, silvering my greens all over with white, and making the trees more ambiguous as to whether they have lusty leaves or are barren of them; trying, in sum, to see the landscape with Shakespeare’s eye, which could see a summer and a winter, the beauty and the decay, at the same time.

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 2: Forty winters

Sonnet 2. Forty winters

Sonnet 2. Forty winters. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The landscape follows the overall geometry of the previous one, with the horizon line at the golden section, and the foreground tree supporting the golden section vertical on the right.

Vincent Van Gogh. "View of Arles with Trees in Blossom" (1988).

Vincent Van Gogh. "View of Arles with Trees in Blossom" (1988).

The motive for this landscape was loosely inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s “View of Arles with Trees in Blossom” (1988), with an older bare tree in the foreground set against a blooming background. In the sonnet, the future winter (or even forty of them) is juxtaposed to a possible future spring/youth (in the person of the addressee’s possible child), yet both are contrasted to the implied present (when the addressee himself is young and blooming). Van Gogh’s motive provided the needed contrast between the old and the new, and the potential for ambiguity between the winter and the spring.

The central image of the poem integrated into the landscape is the deep trenches in thy beauty’s field, which separates the wintery, “old age” foreground from the youthful, springtime background, but also defines the overall inevitable movement from the foreground to the distant background – yet the field is painted in such a way, texture-wise, as to defy the implied perspective and allow for optical ambiguity between the “spring” background being faraway or on the same plane as the old tree. At the same time, the branches of the old tree strive to establish a link between the two.

The core of this attempt at a translation, however, lies in colour, playing at the possibility of seeing something “warm” while feeling it “cold” (in the couplet of the poem): the dominant colours are cold but they are used to set off the vibration between colder and warmer hues. Although the warm colours can be seen, they do not change the feel of coldness.