1 March 2000
In "Sonnet 46" of his works about the blond young man, William Shakespeare presents a unique view on the classic debate about physical lust versus emotional love. The poet struggles to decide if his feelings are based upon superficial desire and infatuation, represented by the "eye" (1), or true love independent of the physical world, symbolized by the "heart" (1). With a deft movement from violent imagery in the first two lines to the civilized language of law, Shakespeare dismisses the commonly accepted view of a battle between the eye and the heart.
The diction of warfare denotes two very separate alien sides clashing in destructive confrontation. Shakespeare advances quickly away from such wording, setting his debate in the civilized context of a courtroom. While the parties engaged in a lawsuit are competing, they are not seeking the destruction of their opposition. A common bond exists between the two sides of a legal case, the bond of society. They are parts of the same whole, or they would not be bound by the laws of that whole. The same holds for the eye and the heart, as well as their metaphysical counterparts, lust and spiritual bonding. The eye and the heart are but organs that make up the body. Physical desire and emotional attraction are just aspects of the overlying concept of love. This is Shakespeare's final point: both physicality and emotional attachment combine to form the powerful force humans know as love.
The opening quatrain of "Sonnet 46" sets up the conflict of infatuation versus true love, acknowledging the classic view of a battle between opposing forces, but swiftly moving beyond such a black and white portrayal of the issue. The first line of the poem seems to say that Shakespeare, like many others, sees infatuation and spiritual attraction as hostile, warring parties. He even chooses to modify "war" (1) with the word "mortal" (1), signifying a conflict to the death with no possibility for reconciliation or pacification. But in the next line he contradicts himself. Though the poet continues to utilize martial imagery such as "conquest" (2), his choice of verbs subtly changes the meaning. "[D]ivide" (2) suggests that both parties in the conflict will receive some portion of the prize, an unlikely occurrence if the eye and heart are truly in "mortal war" (1). Shakespeare underscores this change in direction by substituting a trochee for the standard iamb as the initial foot of the line. Already, the poet is shifting focus away from the idea of warfare and onto the image of a courtroom.
The second quatrain completes that movement and establishes equality between the two sides. Words of violence are conspicuously absent from this point on in the poem, replaced by legal vocabulary, such as "plead" (5), "deny" (7), and "lies" (8). No longer bitter enemies, the eye and the heart become the plaintiff and the "defendant" (7) in a civil dispute over the possession of Shakespeare's love. The diction in this section of the poem also serves to contradict the traditional negative connotations of infatuation. Physical attraction is often portrayed as course or unclean, but Shakespeare disagrees. He describes eyes, the tangible representation of lust, as "crystal" (6), an adjective that implies colorless beauty and perfect purity. Crystals are used in folklore to divine the future, to perceive the truth, and, by using this word to modify eyes, Shakespeare implies that physical attraction stands on equal footing with true love. The meter echoes this equality. Lines 5-6, and 7-8, which present the arguments of the heart and eye respectively, are identical sets of rhymed, un-variated iambic pentameter, separated only by an initial trochee in line 7 which underscores the clear distinction between the heart's contention and that of the eye.
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The third quatrain builds suspense, as the poet's internal trial nears conclusion. Having established equality between lust and true love, Shakespeare moves on to introduce the fulcrum that adjudicates the balance between the two--the mind. Continuing with his legal imagery, the poet builds a "quest of thoughts" (10) to try the case and "determine [. . .]" (11) the "verdict" (11). He throws in a curious twist, informing his readers that the members of the jury are all "tenants to the heart" (10). In doing so, Shakespeare once again calls to mind the classic view of the heart's pure love versus the tainted infatuation of the eye. Despite the apparent bias of the mind toward the heart, the poet does not now share that bias. He once again describes the eyes with diction of purity and cleanliness, naming them "clear" (12). The conflict between eye and heart is manifesting itself in the conflicting message of the third quatrain. Leading his readers into the terminal couplet, the author builds tension by utilizing alternating spondaic and pyrrhic feet in line 12. This produces an effect of slowness followed by celerity, almost like a human consumed by indecision, reaching a solution and then falling back into doubt.
Such a build-up leads readers to expect a dramatic conclusion, a declaration of victory in favor of either true love or infatuation; but Shakespeare provides only a simple, anti-climactic division between the two. The couplet seems to blend in with the rest of the poem, having almost no metrical variation and a recycled rhyme scheme. Usually the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet presents an ironic turning point, and therefore often begins with an initial trochee in line 13 to sign-post that reversal. This couplet is different. Because Shakespeare is proving that physicality and emotional attachment are simply parts of the same whole, he strives not for reversal in the couplet, but for harmony. Therefore, he begins line 13 with an iambic foot, "As thus" (13), allowing the third quatrain to flow directly into couplet. The poet also repeats the rhyme of "part" (13) and "heart" (14) from lines 12 and 10 of the third quatrain, tying the couplet even closer to the body of the poem. Shakespeare presents a common sense solution to the problem, declaring the entire conflict to be almost irrelevant. Lust is based on external aesthetic appeal, so the poet bestows the "outward part" (13) of the poem's young object upon the eye. True love draws its strength from an internal bonding of spirits, and therefore Shakespeare deeds the "inward love" (14) to the heart. And these two halves together form love.
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 46." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 2000. 1: 1033.
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