Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter

Lena Levin. Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter

Sonnet 24: Mine eye hath played a painter. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 24

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 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.

Prasanna Puwanarajah reading this sonnet.

This translation goes directly to the all-too familiar image, accessible when one gets through all syntactic twists and turns of perspective in the sonnet: two lovers looking into into one another’s eyes, to gaze therein on themselves – reflected in the other person’s eye, of course, but also, hopefully, steeled in table of their heart.

I wanted the plane surrounding the eye-painter in my painting to be both distinctly representational, reminiscent of a human face, but also, abstractly and geometrically, mirroring twists, turns, and fluid metaphors with which Shakespeare both creates and partly hides this image.

For a time, I was tempted by the idea of painting a visible reflection of the other person in the eye, but then decided against this all too straightforward approach, for two reasons. First, the power of a lyric poem lies in the ability of the reader to identify both with the speaker, by actually speaking the words, and with the addressee, by listening to them. Leaving the suggested reflection vague, indistinct allows the viewer to identify with the person looking into the eye, recalling their own moments like this and imagining their own reflection there. But more importantly, the invisibility of reflection is linked to the open question of the couplet: what’s in the heart?  We know not – we don’t see it.