“True minds,” Untrue Minds, and “Eyes untrue”: The External and Internal Senses in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 113

by senseshaper

My last post sketched out how the paramaterial mind emerges towards the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I will have more to say about deceiving the external and internal senses in that play in a later post, but I first want to focus on a much shorter and less complex poem to develop how Shakespeare conceives of the Phantasy as a “shaping” faculty. I briefly noted, in that previous post, that Theseus’ revelation that lovers’, madmen’s, and poets’ brains shaped mental objects resembles the central conceit of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 113. As it is much shorter and more self contained, I thought I could use it to explain in more detail how descriptions of the mind and the mind’s eye, while sometimes treated as metaphor, reflect a mental architecture thought to extend beyond metaphor and towards truth.

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As the editors of The Norton Shakespeare have it, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 113 reads as follows:

Since I left you mine eye is in my mind,
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
For it no form delivers to the heart
Of bird, of flower, or shape which it doth latch.
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part,
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch;
For if it see the rud’st or gentlest sight,
The most sweet favour or deformed’st creature,
The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow or dove, it shapes them to your feature.
Incapable of more, replete with you,
My most true mind thus makes mine eye untrue.

In the first quatrain, Shakespeare’s speaker reveals that since the departure of his beloved, his physical eyes no longer function properly, as his sight has become absorbed with the mental image of his beloved. The mental eye replaces and overshadows the physical eye, transporting the location of sight from the external senses to the internal senses. In developing this conceit, Shakespeare draws upon contemporary representations of the ways in which the external and internal senses interact and interface.

It was theorized that the physical eye received visible species from the objects of the external world, which “stamped” themselves on the crystalline humour, the central component of the eye today referred to as a lens. In pre-Keplerian accounts of vision, however, the crystalline humour played a vital role in the process of vision, not focusing light and projecting it upon the opaque wall of the retina, but rather “receiving” the species of external objects. It is this physical eye that Shakespeare’s speaker claims “seems seeing” since it only “doth part its function.” The physical eye and its crystalline humor still receive the species of external objects, but, because of the speaker’s preoccupation with the beloved’s image, the eye does not effectively see them.

Within the poem, the eye of the mind, which effectively replaces the physical eye, can either be taken for the Phantasy itself or some mental faculty that looks upon the objects of the Phantasy. Before I reach the Phantasy, however, it is important to detail how the most common explanation of how sensation and perception were linked through a quasi-materialist account. The crystalline humor received the species of external objects, but it transmitted them to the inner senses through the spirits along the optic nerve to a postulated sensus communis. The sensus communis aggregated the species acquired by the five external senses and conjoined them into a mental object that could then be shaped by the Phantasy. For many theories, the sensus communis functioned as part of the Phantasy since its primary function was for the short term storing of sensory data.

The Phantasy, conjoined to the sensus communis, received the bundled sensory data that included, but was not limited to, the visual image. The Phantasy, like the crystalline humor, received the impression of the conjoined species, and the “image” produced within it was further abstracted from materiality and shaped into a form able to interface with the higher function of Reason or judgment. Once “abstracted” from the sensible species, the intellectual species could be stored in Memory, but it retained its connection to the original external object by retaining a mimetic simulacra that could either sent forward to the Phantasy to picture something previously perceived or, at the very least, contained enough data for the Phantasy to recreate the previously perceived object within the mind’s eye.

For the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 113, the act of remembering his beloved produced within his Phantasy a strong image that overwhelms the external sense. Because he attends, whether consciously or unconsciously, to the image of his absent beloved within the inner senses, the species acquired by the external senses find themselves displaced or manipulated in the act of perception. The phantasm that occupies his attention and a special place in his mind’s eye and heart has to potential to falsify the objects of perception.

In the second quatrain, the speaker details how the eyes can no longer “grasp” the “forms” of external objects. The “flower[s],” “bird[s],” “shape[s],” and all of sensible reality, while producing species within the crystalline humour, cannot penetrate the inner senses and the “mind,” since the Phantasy is already preoccupied with another remembered “form.” Here, Shakespeare refers to the “heart” rather than to the Phantasy, but, as I shall discuss at a later time, the Phantasy was thought to have a special relationship to the heart. The heart, the seat of the affections, stored its own “images” and the images inscribed within it were those “forms” that were most central to a perceiver’s experience. The physical eye cannot “latch” onto or “catch” the species or “forms” of sensible reality because they do not penetrate through the Phantasy and reach the heart.

Most modern Shakespeare editors amend Sonnet 113 from the 1609 Quarto in two significant ways. The first is that the Quarto version reads “lack” rather than “latch.” The second major change involves the concluding couplet. I will return to the couplet change later, but first want to discuss the decision to change “lack” to “latch.” While the off rhyme of “lack” and “catch” might suggest that the line would have been more properly set as “latch,” acknowledging the readings available when on retains the word “lack” reveals another interesting aspect of the way the sonnet represents perception. The slipperiness of the line’s “it” can refer either to the eyes which do not “latch” onto an object or to the heart which either cannot “latch” onto the “forms” delivered to it or provides recognizable “forms” which the heart “lacks.”

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The “heart,” being the repository for those “forms” which have become so internalized as to always remain with the speaker, remains “replete” with the form of his beloved, lacking all others in their purest form. Because of the association of the heart and the Phantasy, the line could also metaphorically suggest that the Phantasy no longer retains the images and the power to recognize other objects, precisely because of the ever-present persistence of the image or absent presence of the beloved. While I agree that modern editors are correct to transform the word from “lack” to “latch,” I also want to acknowledge the possibilities opened up by the Quarto text when not taken as a corruption of Shakespeare’s poesy.

The third quatrain details how the Phantasy itself shapes sense, since any external object he sees becomes remade into the image of his beloved. Just as Theseus had proclaimed in his speech towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lover’s Phantasy can alter perception. According to Theseus, the lover’s Phantasy can render something unattractive attractive, but, in Sonnet 113, the speaker describes how the “forms” of objects acquired by the external senses are shaped and conjoined with the image to which he already unceasingly attends. Whether the sight be of something loved or loathed, beautiful or ugly, or something of “most sweet favour or deformed creature,” the eye or the Phantasy “shape them to [his beloved’s] feature.”

While working with metaphor, Shakespeare depends upon and deploys contemporary theories of the perceptual system to fashion his poem. The image, in a strong imagination or Phantasy, can usurp the act of perception, altering any forms that happen to penetrate beyond the physical eye by conjoining them with the image already within it. If one takes pre- and early modern theories of perception seriously, Shakespeare’s use of them within the poem seem less metaphorical than they might otherwise appear. The image already occupying the Phantasy and or heart meets with the incoming sensible species amalgamated by the sensus communis and offered to the Phantasy.

When the sensible species of a “bird,” “flower,” or “shape” arrives in the faculty of the Phantasy, mind, or the heart, the faculty “shapes” them to his beloved’s “feature” by combining the sensible species along with his remembered image. The process plays on the powers often attributed to the Phantasy in the creative processes and in dreams. The Phantasy in particular, in its recombinative capacity, conjoined the forms of parts of remembered objects to produce, in Theseus’ terms, “the forms of things unknown.” In creating a Pegasus, for example, the imagination conjoined the remembered images of a horse and some type of bird. In creating a golden mountain, the imagination grafted aspects from the memory of gold onto the memory of mountains. In this sonnet, the speaker’s Phantasy combines the externally perceived objects with the dominant internally perceived one. In Sonnet 113, the speaker’s mind shapes the forms acquired by the eye, transforming them into new forms.

Noting the representation of the mind underlying Shakespeare’s sonnet does not diminish the poetry or Shakespeare’s artistry. I also do not wish to argue that the poem does nothing interesting beyond the way in which it reveals the sensory apparatus. I chose this poem to discuss the ways in which this model of perception and of the mind helped shape the metaphors and artistic productions in pre- and early modern periods. The Shakespeare of sonnet 113, like the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, deploys these theories to express the obsessive nature of his speaker and of the miraculous powers of love and memory upon experience and perception. The speaker shapes both beautiful and ugly objects into the feature of his beloved, exposing his ambivalence since the beloved’s form can be so readily conjoined with both types of objects. Those of “most sweet favor” and the most “deformed’st creature” merge and combine themselves with the “feature” of his beloved, underscoring the pliability of the speaker’s mental representation of the beloved. Sonnet 114 complicates this reading since, there, the speaker claims that his eye and mind transform and make the ugly beautiful and the bad good, but the slipperiness of his ability to transform perception so readily simultaneously suggests the potential ambiguity of his relationship with the young man.

As I will discuss in a later post, the paramaterial quality I attribute to the Phantasy and its objects helps explain some of the more bizarre aspects attributed to a strong imagination. Women who conceived while looking upon images or strongly imagining others ran the risk of those forms “impressing” themselves upon the form of the fetus. Laws punished the “imagining” of harm to the king or queen. Overly doting upon particular objects could manifest themselves in the physical body. Some claimed the miraculous powers of healing or other bodily change attributed to relics and other objects resulted from a powerful Phantasy. The image of a loved person could “infect” the body of the lover, filling the spirits and the mind with an excessive desire for that person. I will address many of these topics in separate posts, but, for now, want to return to how the concluding couplet operates in accordance to the theory of perception I offer. While operating alongside metaphor, the central conceit also follows popular accounts of the architecture and functioning of the perceptual system.

The beloved’s form, ensconced in the mind and heart, fills the mind and the body’s spirits with the absent presence. Because the image has such a fascinating power over the speaker’s mind’s eye, his mind, even if a “most true mind,” becomes “incapable of more” because it is already “replete” with the beloved. The word “replete” takes the idea of the speaker’s being glutted and full of his lover towards metaphor, but, since the species or “form” of an object doted upon was sometimes thought to literally insinuate itself in the “spirits” of the mind and body, with the most beloved objects enshrined within the heart, the speaker may also be describing a representation of love that overwhelms and conquers the lover, body, mind, and soul, by filling him with the absent presence.

While even more inclined to accept modern editors’ alteration of the last line than their changes to the Quarto’s sixth line, the Quarto’s concluding “mine untrue” as opposed to the commonly amended “mind eyes untrue” also presents interesting interpretive possibilities. In the Quarto text, the concluding line splits the mind into “true” and “untrue,” constant and deceptive. The fixation with which the speaker’s “true mind” attends to the image of the beloved with which it is metaphorically (and perhaps literally) filled also creates a sensitive soul and eyes that misshape its objects and fail to recognize them. The “true mind” that always has the beloved as an object in the mind’s eye (or Phantasy) and in the heart remains true to its chief object, but, in doing so, also falsifies both the reception of external and internal objects.

As I may discuss in a later post, the pairing of Sonnet 113 and Sonnet 114 suggests that modern editors are correct to amend the final line of 113, but, at the same time, with the intimate and paramaterial (or quasi-material, if you prefer) relationship of eye and mind link rather than radically separate the two. The mind, dependent upon the objects offered to it by the external senses, along with the eye might remain “untrue” precisely because of the shaping capacity of the Phantasy. While I do think the “true mind” and “eye untrue” better parallel the opening line, I also think that the Quarto text offers an interesting possible reading. Both texts, however, when viewed in relation to the architecture of the sensitive soul, I should think, underscore how Shakespeare associates the physical eye with the eye of the mind and, if we read the sonnet as referring to the physical eye itself, reappropriates aspects of the Phantasy and relocates its shaping potential within the physical eye itself.

I will leave the issue of the mental object’s continued relationship with its causal external object aside for now, but I do want to note here that the concept of “absent presence” should not privilege the absence over the presence. Because of the psychophysiological model of the body and the paramaterial model of the sensory apparatus and sensitive soul, I contend that those remembered absences constitute not just a metaphorical but a real presence. The porousness and permeability of the pre- and early modern perceiver interconnected her with the world, and the theories of perception and cognition offered a mind and body that were not radically closed off from the world but were intimately linked with it.

At the same time, the private Phantasy shaped the objects of perception. As Shakespeare’s Sonnet 113 and his Theseus’ description of lovers, madmen, and poets reveal, the composition of the perceiver, both in terms of bodily disposition and in terms of attention shaped the objects received from the world, shaping and coloring them with its own private nature and predispositions. It was the problem of the private Phantasy that, despite a psychophysiological model that precluded a mind-body gap, generates the potential for philosophical skepticism. At the same time, the skeptical potential offered here might not perfectly reflect the skeptical potential available in later philosophical skepticism since the theories of perception and cognition allow for more parity between external and mental objects.

I am particularly interested in exploring the horizons of epistemology available in a system that typically represented body and mind as coexpressive and coextensive, and while the model seems to negate the mind-body problems often associated with modern philosophy, the ways in which philosophical skepticism emerge from earlier paramaterial models reveal similar problems even if they rise from a very different perceptual and mental landscape. For me, a major shift occurs when Kepler developed a radical theory of vision that interposed an opaque wall between the eye and the mind, but that, too, must wait for another post.

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