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A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 47: ‘Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took’

A summary of Shakespeare’s 47th sonnet

‘Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took’: in Sonnet 47, Shakespeare concludes his pair of sonnets about the ‘war’ between his eye and his heart, that had been introduced in the previous sonnet. In Sonnet 47, the war has ended in a truce, and Shakespeare’s eye and heart now live in ‘league’ with each other, doing good turns for the other. This turnaround is going to require a little closer analysis:

Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took,
And each doth good turns now unto the other:
When that mine eye is famish’d for a look,
Or heart in love with sighs himself doth smother,
With my love’s picture then my eye doth feast,
And to the painted banquet bids my heart;
Another time mine eye is my heart’s guest,
And in his thoughts of love doth share a part:
So, either by thy picture or my love,
Thy self away, art present still with me;
For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move,
And I am still with them, and they with thee;
Or, if they sleep, thy picture in my sight
Awakes my heart, to heart’s and eyes’ delight.

First, to paraphrase the meaning of the sonnet: ‘Between my eye and my heart, an alliance has been made, and they now do good turns for each other; when my eye hasn’t looked on the Fair Youth for a while and is dying to do so, or when my heart is almost suffocating with sighs of desire for the Fair Youth, my eye feasts upon a picture of my beloved, and my heart considers the image of my beloved. At other times, my eye is my heart’s guest, and when my heart thinks of love, my eye is made a part of such thoughts. So, either by your image [Fair Youth], or my love for you, you (who are far away) are nevertheless here with me: for you cannot be further away from me than my thoughts let you be, and I am still thinking of you. Or, when I am not thinking of you, I am gazing upon your image, and that inspires my heart to think of you again, and so both my eye and my heart are kept happy.’

Don Paterson, in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, thinks this a silly and ‘ridiculous’ poem, and it’s true that the conceit here is perhaps a little more laboured than in the previous poem. The way to avoid becoming tied up in interpretive knots is to remember that when Shakespeare talks about thoughts in this poem he is referring to his heart’s activities. (The heart, more than the brain, was the seat of thoughts in Elizabethan verse: when Sir Philip Sidney commands himself, ‘Look in thy heart, and write’, he wasn’t calling on a sentimental cliché concerning romantic soul-searching but simply telling himself to examine his own thoughts.)

Otherwise, we’d agree that this isn’t the most inspired or successful of the Sonnets. But thankfully, things will pick up in Sonnet 48, which is where we’re off next. See you there…

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on July 17, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I feel I am about to ask a very stupid question here, but please forgive me as I am not a scholar – is there ever any record of what the Fair Youth thought of these verses? Personally, I might have got a bit irked after a while!

    • Sadly, we can’t even be sure who the Fair Youth was – assuming he was a real man rather than a poetic construct and product of the Bard’s imagination. If he was a real person, one of the leading contenders is William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke – the story goes that the Earl’s father got Shakespeare to pen the early Sonnets to convince his young and conceited son that he should marry and sire an heir. He thought his son would listen to Shakespeare as he was a fan of his work!

      • Well, that gambit backfired somewhat, if true! It would be interesting to find out if the Fair Youth was a real person ( maybe more than one person?) and how he felt about being the subject of so many sonnets. Shakespeare scholars should get together and write some fan fiction about him!

  2. Thank you for sharing and the opportunity to engage. Never read 47

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