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Shakespeare Sonnet 46: "Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war"

Updated on December 12, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real Shakespeare
The real Shakespeare | Source


The speaker in Shakespeare sonnet 46 examines the nature of the conflict that rages between the two important sensibilities that direct his ability to create his poems.

Each poem includes an outer or visual part and an inner or metaphysical part: the outward part is guided by the "eye." The inner part is presided over by the "heart."

The speaker employs two metaphors to describe this raging battle: first, he places the eye and heart on a battlefield; then he transfers them to a courtroom.

As the speaker dramatizes the two battles, he eventually demonstrates how balance and harmony may prevail even after engaging in a vicious, contentious struggle.

Reading of Sonnet 46

First Quatrain: “Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war”

In Shakespeare sonnet 46, the speaker dramatizes a performance of his heart and eye engaged in a furious fight.

The speaker's heart and eye are battling over the age old conundrum of reason vs feeling: the speaker/poet's ability for aesthetic creation represents his reasoning or mind power, metaphorically expressed as "eye."

The speaker's feeling power is represented metaphorically by "heart." He claims that each would not approve of what the other declares; therefore, they are locked in a "mortal war."

The speaker demonstrates his awareness of the inner struggle he must abide as he lives his life of poetry creation.

Second Quatrain: “My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie

The fight carries on with the speaker reporting that the heart is demanding that the poem belongs inside him. The heart asserts that it shields his feelings covering, keeping them out of sight.

If the eye is incapable of seeing into the temple of the heart, then the heart will believe that it will remain in first place regarding the creation of the poem.

That heart avows that it need not permit the eye to intrude into its activities.

The speaker then transforms his metaphor from the battlefield to the courtroom as he slides into a legal metaphor. He calls the eye the "defendant," and this defendant is arguing that he is responsible for the poem having a "fair appearance."

The defendant "eye" claims that the heart is perjuring himself in the complaints.

Third Quatrain: “To ’cide this title is impannelled”

In order to determine the outcome of this battle turned court case, the speaker engages a group of "thoughts." However, these "thoughts" are anything but haphazard. Instead all the thoughts are actually "tenants to the heart."

Thus, it will remain arguable whether those “tenants” will remain fair and objective. However, it is not objectivity that this speaker pursues; his treasure will be—balance and harmony.

The speaker speaks truly that this "quest of thought" will render the proper verdict; he will remain satisfied that they will decide correctly how each part "eye" or "heart" will play out in his poetry creation.

The Couplet: “As thus; mine eye’s due is thy outward part”

As the couplet unfolds, it becomes clear that the speaker has balanced and harmonized the roles of heart and eye in his poetry creation.

The speaker determines that the eye will be responsible for the outward appearance of the sonnet, including all the poetic devices, rhythm, rime, the use of imagery, metaphor, and it will shape the form of the sonnet.

The heart will guide and guard the subject matter and content of the sonnet. It will perform this task while adhering to constraints offered by the eye, lest the poem become maudlin or melancholy, or perhaps even solipsistic.

The speaker has repeatedly and often unveiled his own true purpose for poetry creation: to express his love. He creates each little drama out of his love for his art and his subject matter.

The speaker continues to report on each little conflict that arises in his journey toward the perfect sonnet. Each drama becomes a vital chapter in the story of his art and the unveiling of his resplendent talent. His adoration for poetry creation remains at the heart of all of his effort.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 11 months ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, Louise! I'm a big Shakespeare fan too. His works are always honest and make abundant good sense technically and substantively.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 11 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I always enjoy reading your articles on poems and sonnets. I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, and this is a lovely sonnet.