Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sonnet 39: Absence

Lena Levin. Sonnet 39: Absence. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2013

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 39
O, how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring?
And what is't but mine own when I praise thee?

Even for this let us divided live,

And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deservest alone.

O absence, what a torment wouldst thou prove,

Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly doth deceive,

 And that thou teachest how to make one twain,

 By praising him here who doth hence remain!

I've had a strange dream today: a dream of a stand-alone feeling. I knew how it looked like, and how it felt; it had a colour, and a temperature – like a crystal-clear icicle reflecting magentas, oranges, and blues. There was an extreme clarity of the feeling itself, but no story attached to it, not as far as I can recall. And it was as though I felt it inside and looked at it from outside at the same time, and I knew that I had never felt this feeling before, at least not with this degree of clarity: this painfully intense sadness crystallized into beauty. 

I should probably have used Shakespeare's term distilled, rather than "crystallized", because I woke up absolutely sure that it was the feeling of this Shakespeare sonnet; and the colour harmony of this painting. The road I am travelling with Shakespeare as my guide doesn't feel like a dark forest; rather, it's a steep path up a mountain, brightly sunlit, but hard to climb nonetheless. But this intensity and clarity of feeling, this transcending of boundaries erected by time, space, and human condition, this ultimate power of compassion: that's this journey's promise and its goal.   

I wrote last week how this sonnet is linked to the preceding ones: it continues the thirty sixth's theme of division, separation, oneness made twain, yet looks at it through the prism of a poet-muse relationship of the thirty eights sonnet. This is rather straightforwardly reflected in the colour harmonies of the paintings: look at the mournful colour harmony of 36 (top left) through the prism of 38 (bottom left), and you'll see the colours of 39 (bottom right). 

Dissolution. 30"×24". Oil on canvas. 2013
As a bit of art-historical joke, I have also linked 39 to 38 by the still life quote from Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon", which served as the anchor image for 38. The anchor image for this one, though, is my recently reworked figure study from life (on the right), called "Dissolution". In the sonnet painting, the original figure is split into two slightly different versions of itself, and the result is ambiguous: are these the separated lovers or two views of the same person? My intent was to keep both interpretations possible and "alive", because the sonnet doesn't just deal with the oneness of love split into divided lives; it also deals with the split between two versions of self, two competing stories of separation (Helen Vendler describes this idea in more detail): in one, the speaker of the sonnet is left by his lover, and finds solace in the deceptive thoughts of love; in the other, the poet initiates the division as a solution to an esthetic problem (how thy worth with manners may I sing...); in one, poetry is a consolation; in the other, its the altar on which the relationship is sacrificed for the sake of poetry. 

Which is the true one? Both, I believe: its the acknowledged, accepted truth of both, not a choice between them, that creates the intensity of feeling I have experienced in my dream. 

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