Oh, Now I Get It — Sonnet 46 is not just a cute little poem…

I was just about to move on from Sonnet 46 when something struck me in the category of, “Why hadn’t I thought of that before?”

Westminster Hall,  a sketch circa 1620

Westminster Hall, a sketch circa 1620

Here I’d been talking about how Sonnets 37-46 are focused on the treason trial of Essex and Southampton on 19 Feb 1601 at Westminster Hall, ending with a metaphorical trial in Sonnet 46; but suddenly I realized that Oxford was mirroring his own divided self as a judge who’d been forced to render a guilty verdict against Southampton.

“Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,” he begins Sonnet 46, summing up the torturous inner conflict he must have endured — having to condemn Southampton to death (on Robert Cecil’s instructions) precisely to gain the possibility of saving him!

Interior of Westminster Hall

Interior of Westminster Hall

“Thy adverse party is thy Advocate,” he’d told Southampton  in Sonnet 35, expressing a form of the same conflict.   “Such civil war is in my love and hate.”

In Sonnet 46 the civil war between “eye” and “heart” is between his rational and emotional sides.  His eye (rational) claims “the outward part,” but his heart (emotional) holds the “inward love of heart.”

Translation:  “I did my outward duty to the state by finding you guilty of high treason, but my heart contradicted that by continuing to love you.”

I wrote in THE MONUMENT that Oxford “recreates his entire experience of the trial” in Sonnet 46, but I hadn’t recognized the verse as such an accurate, specific, deeply personal expression of his own divided self on the tribunal at Westminster Hall.   Surely it was one of the worst moments of his life.

Westminster Hall - another view

Westminster Hall - another view

On the surface Sonnet 46 seems to be merely clever,  a sustained conventional metaphor in the form of a legal dispute between eye and heart.  Only when these lines are placed within the framework of Oxford’s painful inner conflict, at the trial, do they acquire their real power.

Here again is Sonnet 46, with some of the legal terms emphasized:

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

Oxford was highest-ranking earl on the tribunal of 25 peers at Westminster Hall, where they were duty bound to find both Essex and Southampton guilty of high treason

Oxford was highest-ranking earl on the tribunal of 25 peers at Westminster Hall, where they were duty bound to find both Essex and Southampton guilty of high treason

My heart, mine eye the freedom of that right;
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.
To ‘cide this title is impanelled
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,*
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eyes’ moiety, and thy dear heart’s part:
As thus, mine eyes’ due is thy outward part,
And my heart’s right, their inward love of heart.

* Quest = Jury

Published in: Uncategorized on September 29, 2009 at 3:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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