Painting sonnet 95: Art in the light of conscience

Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O! in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose.

That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise, but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.

O! what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;
The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 95

This sonnet was hard to connect with at first, but then it happened with uncommon ease.

I had to engage with, and then reject — not for the first time — the conventional “unfaithful lover” meaning, which makes the sonnet so incredibly shallow. Incredibly, if one assumes (as I do) that the author of the sonnets and the author of the plays are one and the same man. Telling someone you supposedly love how really evil and sinful they are, their vices barely covered with beauty’s veil — it isn’t really love, is it? This is about as common, shallow, mediocre pastime as it gets — and it’s just not what one would expect from Shakespeare the playwright, with his boundless-as-the-sea bounty of universal humanity and compassion.

So, if not an unfaithful lover, who is it he is talking to?

He gives an answer, right here in the sonnet — by first repeating name thrice, and then actually naming the addressee: dear heart. So, is his own heart the addressee of this sonnet? Of course, “dear heart” can be addressed to a person, too. This is not common in Shakespeare (this address occurs only five times in all his works, and only twice in the sonnets), but this possibility is there, on the surface of the sonnet, even though no single person is ever named in the whole sequence…

There is more: it is not just any name, it is thy budding name. What does it mean? Here is my wild guess: can it be art budding within heart? Can it be Art itself the poet is talking to?

Art would certainly “fill the bill”. It does all those things the sonnet laments, far better than any human, enclosing sins in sweetness and covering vices with beauty’s veil. In fact, this sonnet reminded me of an essay by Marina Tsvetayeva’s, “Art in the light of conscience” — another great poet writing about Art’s maddening and utter indifference to human morality. Art has no shame, it knows no sins (Art didn’t eat that apple in the Garden of Eden, Tsvetayeva says at one point, Adam did). Art is a mansion where sins and vices can reside with impunity, veiled by its beauty and seductive power.

People tend to think about Art either as something good and useful (occasionally, even as therapy), or as something irrelevant and useless — not as something utterly unconcerned with us at all. That is because they believe it is something humans make. But that’s not how great artists — those who know Art most intimately — experience it. They don’t make art. It’s more like a force of nature expressing itself than a product designed by humans for human consumption. Tsvetaeva calls it one of the elements: the Russian words for “the elements” and “poem”, стихии and стихи, sound even more alike than heart and art do.

For an artist, this interaction with art as an objective force is a matter of subjective experience. But there is a science to it, too.  Richard Dawkins, in “The Selfish Gene”, introduced the concept of “meme” — a gene-like unit of another layer of evolution, which uses our brains and our nervous systems as its building materials, its vehicles for survival.

We live side by side with a whole population of such memetic “life forms”. Languages and arts are certainly among them. We are essential for their continued existence (just like soil, air,  water, and all the life forms we eat are essential for ours), but they are as “selfish” as genes are — and as unconcerned with our individual needs and desires. They live and evolve according to their own laws, which have little (if anything) to do with our morality, our vices, and our desires. Humans have lamented language change from the very beginning of recorded time, but this has never prevented languages from changing (and, occasionally, dying).

Art, poetry, language — the survival and procreation of these life forms depends on their ability to “plant” themselves in as many humans as they can muster. But what happens in the inner world of a human in whom their evolution makes a major leap forward — in a poet as great as Shakespeare? For all I know, it must have been an intense and dangerous relationship — it can even be called a love affair.   

My reading of the sonnet has been vacillating between it being about Art and its ability to veil every vice with beauty — Art in the light of conscience, and it being about a human heart — and its ability to enclose in sweetness and loveliness all kinds of things which the mind (and the conscience) would hurry to label as sinful. These interpretations, however, are closer to one another than it might seem. After all, its our hearts — not our minds or our consciences that Art enchants for survival and procreation. It is in our hearts that it hides itself from the light of conscience.

In my painting translation, there are close-up fragments of a rose in the foreground, which transform themselves into (almost completely abstract) glimpses of a mansion, and of beauty’s veil — its lines and images as utterly unable to contain the flow of colour as the human mind is unable to control the flow of art.