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  • Jennifer Gillen

Moving into Painting through Sonnets

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory;

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.



William Shakespeare - Sonnet 1



This sonnet is about the danger of self-love of one's own beauty. It's also about waste and the inevitable fact that beauty decays. I see the subject of this poem as a flower from a showy bulb. Maybe it is even the kind of bulb you force to grow in winter, indoors: amaryllis, a parrot tulip maybe, or narcissus.


The word "riper" makes it seem like a fruit. But fruits are filled with seeds that are meant to reproduce. I guess if you think about a beautiful pomegranate, uneaten and left to decay in a fruit bowl it makes more sense. Those seeds will never be dispersed and will never create an "heir".


Although a rose is mentioned, it doesn't seem quite right. Roses are not heralds of spring. Neither are they selfish with their beauty. Roses proliferate easily, creating offshoots and a bounty of generous blooms. This really makes me think of crocus or narcissus which are definitely heralds of spring.


I copied this sonnet into my journal this morning. Hand-writing a poem really helps me to absorb it. This is also a peaceful practice. Since reading Romeo and Juliet again, I feel a need to dig deeper into lessons from Shakespeare. Analyzing the sonnets is a way to teach myself.

For an artist, poetry is a wonderful way to spark visualizations. I try to see the subject in the language of my paintings, in flowers. Shakespeare had a lovely way of utilizing imagery from nature. The sonnets are so perfectly constrained to pentameter and length that they seem like a beautiful way of containing the wildness of nature. This might sound weird, but sonnets are almost three dimensional. There is the shape of the poem itself, the subject of the poem, and the devices used to convey the meaning (puns, metaphor, etc.).

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