A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 24 begins with the line ‘Mine eye hath played the painter and hath stell’d …’, thus picking up on two now familiar tropes from the Sonnets: the role of the eye in discerning things (see the previous sonnet) and the use of painting as a metaphor or analogue for poetry. Below are some notes towards an analysis of Sonnet 24 in terms of its meaning.
Mine eye hath played the painter and hath stell’d,
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And perspective that is best painter’s art.
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 glazed with thine eyes.
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, where-through 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 last sonnet was puzzling, and this one presents something of a challenge to the reader seeking to analyse and interpret the poet’s meaning. What should we make of Sonnet 24, especially that curiously worded fourth line?
Well, in summary, Shakespeare begins by saying that his eye has been like a painter in that it has engraved (‘stelled’ means carved or painted; it is sometimes altered by editors of the Sonnets to ‘steeled’, though that would ruin the rhyme with ‘held’) the beautiful form of the Fair Youth in the ‘table’ of the poet’s heart (‘table’ here referring to something that can be drawn or painted on). Like a painting, the Youth’s beauty is ‘framed’ in the poet’s body (because the poet surrounds the Youth), and the painter’s art of ‘perspective’, the painter’s great art or talent, also surrounds the Youth. This fourth line is a nightmare for editors seeking to gloss the Sonnets! Don Paterson, in his insightful and entertaining Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary (Paterson also uses the word ‘nightmare’ of this line), suggests that the unusual scansion of ‘perspective’ here (pronounced ‘PERspectIVE’ rather than ‘perSPECTive’, the more usual way) may suggest that ‘perspective’ is a verb, though what ‘to perspective it’ would mean here remains unclear. Although it’s open to question, we prefer to analyse lines 3-4 in the following way: if in line 3 the poet is talking about his body being a metaphorical ‘frame’ that surrounds and envelops the Youth, then his ‘perspective’ would needless to say be rather up-close and personal; his ‘perspective’, he is winningly implying, is improved by being so close to the Youth, and the only reason he needs to get so intimate with him is, ahem, in the service of great art. We may be wide of the mark with this reading, so would welcome your suggestions for an alternative analysis or reading of this section below.
Anyway, in lines 5-8 things become a bit clearer. Shakespeare makes a general point about art, that it is through observing the painter’s work that we see the ‘true image’ of something, since art brings its true essence to life. In the painter’s workshop that is my heart, my portrait of you is still hanging, and the windows of this shop are your eyes, which gaze upon my heart.
In lines 9-12, Shakespeare says that there is a neat reciprocal relationship between the two, based on what their eyes have done for each other (to return to that opening line, ‘Mine eye hath played the painter’): the poet’s eyes have looked upon and depicted the Fair Youth, and the Youth’s eyes are ‘windows’ to the poet’s own soul, since Shakespeare, in looking into the Youth’s eyes, realises the love he, the poet, bears in his own heart.
Yet in the concluding couplet, Shakespeare says that he can draw what he sees, but he cannot draw the Youth’s own feelings since he cannot see into his heart. It’s as if, as in the previous sonnet, Shakespeare has made his feelings plain, but the young man is a little bit less forthcoming about how he feels towards the Bard.
Sonnet 24 is a tricky sonnet to analyse and interpret, but it’s worth the effort – though there are far better sonnets just on the horizon. Sonnet 25, for instance.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 24 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, and ‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.