If “Gothic Nightmares” at the Tate Britain failed to send shivers down my receptive spine, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Searching for Shakespeare” sure did nothing less. I am generally not one to wax poetic at the sight of artefacts that may or may not have belonged to some literary so-and-so. For the most part, I don’t really care what a writer looked like, as long as his or her prose or poetry is to my liking. To be sure, having studied and taught Shakespeare during my college and university days, I am sufficiently impressed by the sight of an old Folio edition. Something else caught my mind’s eye at that exhibition; and it was not one of the supposed likenesses of Shakespeare—many of which have long been proven spurious—but the portrait of one of his contemporaries.
The portrait in question is that of John Donne, a painting currently being offered to the National Portrait Gallery, which is trying to raise funds in the amount of £1,652,000 to obtain it before the purchasing opportunity expires at the end of May. So, the picture now hangs in the Shakespeare exhibition, where visitors have to pay to get a glimpse of it. It is well worth a glimpse, I assure you. I confess the pleasures I derive from being moved by a work of art, whether considered trifling or momentous, and it is not rare that I stand before a painting with tears welling in my eyes or goose bumps sprouting on my skin. Composed by an unknown artist around 1595, the Donne portrait is decidedly of the gooseflesh variety.
It is in poems like “His Picture” and “Witchcraft by a Picture” that Donne speaks to us about attempts at portraiture, about the art or hubris of capturing life, the act of imitating nature or surpassing creation—troubling thoughts for a former Roman-Catholic growing up in the turmoil of the Reformation and its sanctioned smashing of images. In the former poem, Donne writes:
I fix mine eye on thine, and there
Pity my picture burning in thine eye;
My picture drown’d in a transparent tear,
When I look lower I espy;
Hadst thou the wicked skill
By pictures made and marr’d, to kill,
How many ways mightst thou perform thy will?
But now I’ve drunk thy sweet salt tears,
And though thou pour more, I’ll depart;
My picture vanished, vanish all fears
That I can be endamaged by that art;
Though thou retain of me
One picture more, yet that will be,
Being in thine own heart, from all malice free.
In the latter piece, Donne suggests the mental image and the imaged man to be at odds; a painting is a memento mori, which, fixed in time, turns into an unlikeness of fleeting life.
Here take my picture; though I bid farewell,
Thine, in my heart, where my soul dwells, shall dwell.
‘Tis like me now, but I dead, ’twill be more,
When we are shadows both, than ’twas before.
To his own portrait, lost and mislabeled for centuries, Donne referred as “that picture of mine which is taken in shadows.” In my irreverent mind, the striking features of Donne’s shadow-cast face began to resemble that of The Shadow, Lamont Cranston—the secret avenger who, striking hidden from view, laughed death in the face and had a sermon for all who dared to defy the law: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”
Sermonizing Donne, who once wrote “A Lecture upon the Shadow,” approached the challenge of death in one of his most famous sonnets:
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Donne’s portrait has captured my imagination; yet, having too often crossed—and all but crossed out—the uncertain boundaries between high art and low, it is The Shadow who now runs away with it. In my mind, I hear Lamont Cranston’s defiant laugh as I gaze at the poet’s likeness, “taken in shadows.”