William Shakespeare – Sonnet 46

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie,
A closet never pierced with crystal eyes,
But the defendant doth that plea deny,
And says in him thy fair appearance lies.
To ‘cide this title is impannelled
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart;
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eye’s moiety, and the dear heart’s part:
     As thus: mine eye’s due is thine outward part,
     And my heart’s right, thine inward love of heart.

These two sonnets, 46 & 47, debate the respective merits of the heart’s and the eyes’ claim to be the sole possessor of the beloved. In 46 they are at mortal war. In 47 they have evidently signed a pact. The whole thing is an amusing mix of psychological and physiological ideas which do not really add up, but it is held together here by the terminology of the courtroom. The eye and the heart are bound over to enjoy their own appropriate portion.

The quarrel between eyes and heart (or mind) for dominion in love’s realm was traditional. The eye was believed to hold the image, but the heart was responsible for feeling and emotion. Compare for example sonnets 19 and 20 by Thomas Watson in the Tears of Fancie (1593). The two sonnets are printed below.

 Two extracts from the plays give different views, but the debate was not entirely serious, despite the depth and occasional desperation of the emotions which engendered it.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste: 

Tell me where is fancy bred,
   Or in the heart or in the head,
How begot, how nourished?
   Reply, reply.
It is engendered in the eyes,
   With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies
.   Let us all ring fancy’s knell:
   I’ll begin it – Ding, dong, bell. MV.III.2.63-71.
Here fancy = love, desire, infatuation.

There are two instances in this sonnet of the compositorial error of their for thy, in lines 3 and 14.


or Love Disdained.


My Hart impos’d this penance on mine eies,
(Eies the first causers of my harts lamenting) :
That they should weepe till love and fancie dies,
Fond love the last cause of my harts repenting.
Mine eies upon my hart inflict this paine,
(Bold hart that dard to harbour thoughts of love)
That it should love and purchase fell disdaine,
A grievous penance which my hart doth prove.
Mine eies did weepe as hart had them imposed,
My hart did pine as eies had it constrained:
Eies in their teares my paled face disclosed,
Hart in his sighs did show it was disdained.
So th’one did weepe th’other sighed, both grieved,
For both must live and love, both unrelieved.


My hart accused mine eies and was offended,
Vowing the cause was in mine eies aspiring:
Mine eies affirmed my hart might well amend it,
If he at first had banisht loves desiring.
Hart said that love did enter at the eies,
And from the eies descended to the hart:
Eies said that in the hart did sparkes arise,
Which kindled flame that wrought the inward smart,
Hart said eies tears might soone have quencht that fl[ame,]Eies said harts sighs at first might love exile:
So hart the eies and eies the hart did blame,
Whilst both did pine while both the paine did feele.
Hart sighed and bled, eies wept and gaz’d too much,
Yet must I gaze because I see none such.

From T. Watson, Tears of Fancie, 1593.

The 1609 Quarto Version

MIne eye and heart are at a mortall warre,
How to deuide the conqueſt of thy ſight,
Mine eye,my heart their pictures ſight would barre,
My heart,mine eye the freeedome of that right,
My heart doth plead that thou in him dooſt lye,
(A cloſet neuer pearſt with chriſtall eyes )
But the defendant doth that plea deny,
And ſayes in him their faire appearance lyes.
To ſide this title is impannelled
A queſt of thoughts,all tennants to the heart,
And by their verdict is determined
The cleere eyes moyitie,and the deare hearts part.
   As thus,mine eyes due is their outward part,
   And my hearts right,their inward loue of heart.


1. Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,a mortal war = a fight to the death, a destructive war. divide in the next line suggests that it is a fight over a piece of land, the spoils to be divided.2. How to divide the conquest of thy sight;conquest – OED 4 gives: That which is acquired by force of arms; a possession or acquisition made in war; a conquered country, etc.: now restricted to territorial acquisitions, formerly also including booty.
Wherefore rejoice? What Conquest brings he home?
What Tributaries follow him to Rome?
 JC.I. i. 37-8.
Here the conquest acquired is the right to enjoy the sight of the beloved.3. Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,

My eye seeks to prevent my heart from enjoying the sight of you.  thy picture = the image of you which my eye captures. In the context of the remaining lines of the sonnet, bar probably is used predominantly in its legal sense of ‘to stay or arrest (an action); to exclude or prevent the advancement of (a plea, claim, right.)’ OED 5.b.
A Will, that barres the title of thy sonne.
 John.II.1.1924. My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.My heart (which also holds your picture in its memory) disputes whether my eye has the right to look at it. Here bars, or would bar is understood. The heart seeks to bar the eye the right to look. The seat of love was the heart, and therefore the beloved dwelt there, rather than in the eye. This gives to the heart the right of freehold possession. (See the next line).5. My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie,

The legal terminology continues. The heart pleads, as in a court of law.6. A closet never pierced with crystal eyes,closet = a small private room, often used for prayers; a chest for storing valuables.
crystal eyes – a similar phrase is used by Shakespeare in LLL and TGV and VA.
Ay me! says one; O Jove! the other cries;
One, her hairs were gold, crystal the other’s eyes 

This is the gentleman I told your ladyship
Had come along with me, but that his mistress
Did hold his eyes lock’d in her crystal looks.

Her eye seen in the tears, tears in her eye;
Both crystals, where they viewed each other’s sorrow – VA.963-4.

Other sonneteers used the metaphor, which seems to have been part of the furniture of adornment given to eyes. Thus William Smith in his sonnets to Chloris (1596):
That day wherein mine eyes cannot her see,
Which is the essence of their crystal sight 
Sonn. 38.

‘Crystal’ is used as a synonym for eyes. The connection presumably is with the transparency of sight (figuratively) and of tears, as also of the eyeball itself, which could be gazed into as if it were a crystal.7. But the defendant doth that plea deny,the defendant = the eye. The appellant makes the claim that the eye has no claim over the image of the beloved. The defendant denies this claim, and puts forward a counter claim in the following line.8. And says in him thy fair appearance lies.When lovers ‘look babies’ in each other’s eyes, the image of each in miniature appears in the other’s eye. Hence the eye of the poet could claim that the image of the youth lay within him.9. To ‘cide this title is impannelledto ‘cide = to decide, to settle. This is an emendation of Q’s side which is not universally adopted.
title = claim to a title, right of possession.
impanelled – from impanel, or empanel: to enrol or set up a body of jurors.OED. Compare:
A Jurie was impaneld streight. 1596 Spenser. F.Q.VI.vii. 3410. A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart;

a quest = a body of jurors as for an inquest;  all tenants to the heart – As SB points out (p.209, n.10) this is very much a packed jury, since the eyes have no representatives. The eyes were not capable of thought and the decision had to be made for them. However one need not press the legal analogy too closely, especially as the final verdict does not appear to be biased.11. And by their verdict is determineddetermined = decided. The -ed is pronounced, as also in impannelled.12. The clear eye’s moiety, and the dear heart’s part:moiety = portion, entitlement. As in a judicial settlement. Ditto for part.13.   As thus: mine eye’s due is thine outward part,thine outward part = your external appearance, your looks, your physical beauty, your bodily parts.14.   And my heart’s right, thine inward love of heart.

right = right of possession. The repetition of the rhyme part and heart from the previous quatrain is somewhat lame, except that it probably confuses the issue deliberately by constant interchange of hearts and parts. The contrast is drawn between the superficial interest of the eye, and the enduring concern of the heart for that which is ‘inward’, hence sincere, real, permanent. Outward affection could be forged, but truth and reality cannot be (or so the heart believes). See however 137, 138, 148.


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