Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
The first glimpse of the eighty first sonnet painting appeared on January 9th, 2016. Not exactly “out of the blue” — I had been staying with this sonnet for quite some time, but unexpected nonetheless. It might have been blocked by the crisis with the previous one, and just appeared when this block was finally removed.
Even through this crisis, I did contemplate the sonnet: it’s somewhat controversial meaning, it’s ambivalent relationship to truth, its ambiguous addressee; and I made a colour chart, in an attempt to access its colour harmony. But there was no structure, no imagery — nothing to start a painting with. The glimpse I saw on January 9th was of the painting’s basic geometry: the contrast between a large, Turner-like circle of light, and the rough, earthly, stony foreground; and the core colour effect: flickering oranges against shiny greys. I started the underpainting for this sonnet on January 11th.
This sonnet is one of the rare occasions when the modern reader is also its character: we are its eyes not yet created, we are its tongues to be. The sonnet’s promise of immortality is thus apparently upheld by the very act of reading it, but with one caveat: this is Shakespeare’s immortality, not anyone else’s. In particular, not his young friend (or lover, or patron) to whom the sonnet is traditionally supposed to be addressed.
It is not the first time in the sequence its speaker promises immortality-through-art to its addressee, but this is the first time (as far as I recall) that this promised immortality is so explicitly opposed — twice! — to the speaker’s own mundane mortality (the earth can yield me but a common grave). It is this opposition that makes the poem’s promise an apparent lie.
This contradiction puzzles the mind, and suggests — to me at least — that the traditional reading (a poet addressing a friend) misses something fairly important. There must be something else going on here: the conventional interpretation just doesn’t work, and there are two more aspects of the poem that make it fall apart. First, the opposition between the listener’s immortality and the speaker’s mortality is introduced by although and though — as if their mortality (or immortality) are expected to be intrinsically linked to one another. Well, they are, in a sense — insofar as a poem’s immortality and the poet’s immortality are essentially the same thing. But that’s exactly what this poem is denying. And secondly, it’s the name of the addressee that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of the young man is never ever mentioned in the sequence! Dante might have immortalised the name of his Beatrice, and Petrarch, the name of his Laure — but Shakespeare left the name unnamed!
That’s why I cannot believe this poem is (a part of) a conversation between the poet and his beloved. In some way, it must be a conversation between two different “selves” of the poet (and here, momentarily, the mind is tempted by all these theories of alternative authorship: one person’s verse is immortalising the name of another). “Two selves” might sound like introducing too much modernity into Renaissance poetry, and maybe it does. But, after all, isn’t that the point of artistic immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, reaching far into the future, and I am no exception. But I don’t really think so, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse (and a muse is, arguably, a version of another self). This context gives a key to the puzzle of the sonnet.
At this stage, the painting was envisioned as a contrast between earth and air (picking up the sonnet’s theme of “breathing”, and the implied link between breathing and inspiration). It continues the strand of juxtaposing Turner with cubism; geometrically, it’s a juxtaposition of straight lines and a circle, harsh lines and subtle variations of colour.
The work on this painting continued on January 12, but the painting session was shorter than expected, because I didn’t quite know what to do next, and didn’t want to move forward without more clarity.
This painting session contained an “aha-moment”, an insight into the deeper meaning of the sonnet. Not “the” solution to its puzzle; this puzzle, like most of Shakespeare’s many puzzles is probably not there to be “solved”, but rather to puzzle the mind, to make it give up and let go. What Shakespearean puzzles remind me of is a Buddhist teaching practice, which amounts to offering the mind something so absurdly paradoxical and incomprehensible that it gives up, and “goes away” for a moment at least, opening the gap into a direct, “untranslated”, perception of reality.
So my “aha-moment” wasn’t the solution, not the answer to the question of who is the “you” who can be immortalised in Shakespeare’s poetry while its “I” remains completely, earthly mortal. Instead, I remembered that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is creating is definitely not the everyday “I” navigating in the world. In poetry especially, by all accounts, the ancient mechanism of suspending the “left-brain consciousness” to let another voice speak audibly still works. That’s how great poetry emerges — by listening, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So this tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry.
But this tension is not just the relationship between a poet and his Muse. The “I” who is talking here is more complex, more ambiguous: on the one hand, it knows itself to be fully, completely, earthly, humanely mortal; on the other, it speaks of all breathers of this world with a mind-boggling detachment, as though it’s not one of them. There is a vacillation between mortality and immortality, between the speaker and the listener, between two “selves” — all throughout the poem, like the very rhythm of breathing in and out.
The painting was completed on January 14, or at least as “completed” it could be before all its “sister paintings” (other parts of the same sixteen-sonnets composition) are here. The final insight was that the painting shouldn’t try to be the solution to the puzzle of the sonnet; rather, it should be as puzzling to the mind as the sonnet. And this puzzle is not about mortality versus immortality (both of them, after all, are rather boring) — but rather about the vacillation between two “selves”: the experiencer and the witness, the story-telling I (the left-brain consciousness in Julian Jaynes’s sense), on the one hand, and something larger than that. With this insight, the painting changed. From the painting “about” earth and air, it turned into something about this trembling, fascinating vacillation between two “selves”, where you don’t quite now, at each particular moment, which one of them is “you”.
When I first envisioned this composition, I was confused about the location of the circle (or rather, the location of its centre): sometimes, it wanted to be right in the middle of the painting; other times, slightly off. In the current version, there are two circles with different centres, even though the eye of the beholder might be puzzled about it. And a similar re-affirmation of ambiguities, ambivalences between alternative “solutions”, happened to other aspects of the painting, too (greys versus blues, curves versus straight lines).
And the painting process was itself an instance of vacillation between the experiences of two selves. I berated myself for this for a time, because I believe that the authentic painting process ought to come from this larger, deeper version of “self”. But then again — if I am to paint this trembling, this vacillation, akin to the motion of breathing in and out, then I am bound, in a sense, to experience it in the process. This is the experience the painting comes from.