‘Sonnet 46,’ also known as ‘Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,’ is number forty-six of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote in his lifetime. These were published together and organized after his death. This particular poem is included as one of 126 in the Fair Youth sequence. It is dedicated to and addressed to a beautiful young man.
The speaker goes back and forth at the beginning of this poem describing how his eyes and heart both assert a claim over the speaker. One is interested in outward appearances and the other in internal love and emotion. The speaker has to bring together a panel of thoughts to suss out what is right in this situation. He decides that the heart and eyes can each lay claim to that which they desire, beauty and love.
‘Sonnet 46’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line, single stanza poem that is structured in the form that has become synonymous with the poet’s name. The English or Shakespearean sonnet is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. One of the unusual things about this poem is that the “F” and “G” rhymes are the same. Any deviation from the traditional pattern is unusual for Shakespeare and is worth pointing out. The sonnet is written in iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, 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 46’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and metaphor. The last of these is evident in the first lines of the poem. A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do 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 this case, Shakespeare compares the war going on in his head to that which occurs in war.
This technique is linked in ‘Sonnet 46’ to personification. It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics—for example, the heart and eye, which are described as arguing and taking different sides.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “heart” and “How,” as well as two more instances of repetition with the word “heart” in the first four lines.
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.
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 46,’ the speaker begins by referring to the “eye” and the “heart.” Both of these images will feature prominently in this poem and the one that follows, ‘Sonnet 47’. The speaker states that this eye and heart have gone into a “mortal war” together. They are divided in what they want from love. The eye wants to keep the heart away from his desire and visa versa. Although they both want beauty and love, they want it differently.
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.
In lines five through eight of ‘Sonnet 46’ the speaker adds that the heart wants to keep “thou,” the Fair Youth inside it. There, the youth will be safe and hidden from the “crystal eyes” that might want a piece of him. On the other side of this equation is the “defendant” or the eye that “plea deny”.
The eye, personified, says that it cares only for “fair appearances”. The eye believes that the youth’s beauty does not rest in the speaker’s heart and their emotional connection but in the speaker’s enjoyment of his appearance.
To ‘cide this title is empanellèd
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,
And by their verdict is determinèd
The clear eye’s moiety and the dear heart’s part:
As thus—mine eye’s due is thy outward part,
And my heart’s right, thy inward love of heart.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 46,’ the speaker adds that he has brought together a group to decide who has the claim to the youth. The impaneled jury is made up of the speaker’s thoughts which are tied to the heart. They have decided what is right and what is wrong in this case. The panel of thought’s answer is in the final two lines of the poem.
The couplet informs the reader that ht speaker has decided that the eye have the right to the youth’s “outward part,” or outward appearance. The heart on the other hand has “thy inward love of heart”. It can claim possession over emotional love and connection.