‘Sonnet 24’ also known as ‘Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath stell’d,’ is the twenty-fourth of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the extended and well-known Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). In this particular sonnet Shakespeare engages in a discussion of the traditional conceit, stemming from the Renaissance, that connects the heart and the eye. At the time, scholars have suggested, this conceit would’ve been a cliche, therefore leading many to treat this sonnet as fairly commonplace and less interesting than the others within the same series.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 24’ the speaker describes the connection, eyes to hearts, that the two share. His eyes have the ability to paint the youth’s image upon his heart. There, his body protects and frames it. The speaker goes deeper into these images and imagines himself looking into the youth’s eyes, into the reflection of his own eyes, and then into his heart where that image lies. Despite the skill of his eyes he is unable to see the youth’s heart, just what is on the surface.
‘Sonnet 24’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. The poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. It also follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in poems from Shakespeare, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 24’. These include but are not limited to personification, metaphor, and enjambment. The first, personification, occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the last lines where the speaker says that the “sun / Delights” in looking or “peep[ing]” into the youth’s eyes just as he does. Enjambment is a technique that occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines five and six.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In the first lines the poet sets up a complex metaphor that compares his eyes to a painter who is quite skilled at his craft.
Mine eye hath played the painter and hath steeled
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart.
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And pérspective it is best painter’s art.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 24,’ the speaker begins by describing the work of his “eye”. It has, as a painter, created an image of the Fair Youth on the “table of [his] heart”. This might also be read as the eye painting a picture or engraving an image, of the youth on the speaker’s heart.
The canvas/paper/engraving which is placed on the speaker’s heart is in a frame, the speaker’s body. There, it is “held” safely. The last line of this stanza is complex, alluding to an artist’s ability to accurately convey perspective. It is the highest skill of a painter, and one only they possess.
For through the painter must you see his skill
To find where your true image pictured lies,
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazèd with thine eyes.
The second quatrain continues to speak about the “eye” and its skill as a painter. It is “through the painter,” the eye, that “you must see his skill”. His eye is the only thing that allows access to the image in his heart. It is a gateway to the heart.
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, wherethrough the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee.
Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art;
They draw but what they see, know not the heart.
The third quatrain tells the listener, the Fair Youth, that he needs to look at the “good turns,” or favours, that their eyes have done one another. The speaker’s eyes have drawn the youth’s shape and the youth’s eyes are “windows to [the speaker’s] breast”. He can look into the youth’s eyes, see his reflected eyes, and in his eye reflections look into his own heart.
The sun also likes to look there, deep into the youth’s eyes. It “Delights,” an example of personification, to “gaze therein on thee”.
In the last two lines of the poem, the speaker concludes by saying that his eyes are skillful, but they lack the ability to see into the youth’s heart. This means they can only draw “what they see” and that does not include “the heart”.