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For the longest time I had always thought that Our great Bard had, with his poetic wonder, come up with "the eye of heaven" for his immortal, sonnet 18:

Rough windes do ſhake the darling buds of Maie, And Sommers leaſe hath all too ſhorte a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heauen ſhines, And often is his gold complexion dimm'd,

But shortly after, I came across the phrase numerous times in his other works: the exact words "eye of heaven" (in reference to the Sun) are found (by Shakespeare) 4 separate times, not including Sonnet 18:

The Rape of Lucrece:

The eye of heaven is out, and misty night

King John:

Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

And found twice in Richard II:

All places that the eye of heaven visits Are to a wise man ports and happy havens.

and,

Discomfortable cousin! know'st thou not That when the searching eye of heaven is hid,

Sonnets are from 1590s, Richard II is from 1595, King John is from mid-1590s, The Rape of Lucrece is from 1594.

This began to make me question whether Shakespeare had really coined that majestic phrase, and Lo and Behold, I found the phrase in other works of the period:

John Donne uses it in The Progress of the Soul, First Song (Although I have never really been able to find a date for this one; nevertheless, Donne is of the Elizabethan, Jacobean period.)

Thee, eye of heaven, this great soul envies not.

The Admirable Deliverance of 266 Christians by John Reynard from 1608,

with cheeréfullhearts did they choose rather to pyrity in the eye of heaven , and by the hand of GOD

The celestiall husbandrie from 1616,

the fairest obiect, to the eye of the world, and goodnes to the eye of heaven: there is a glorious splendor, in pompous honor

The Muses welcome to the high and mightie prince Iames by the grace of God King of Great Britaine France and Ireland from 1618,

on whom the eye of heaven glaunceth, deignes

Google Books Ngram Viewer says the phrase first appears in 1593 (a young Shakespeare was just beginning to get his big break with the early Henry plays).

I cannot find any essays or studies on who coined the phrase, as I would suspect, most readers believed it was Shakespeare's, and it very well might be, but because it seems to have been rather common (if it was not common, most writers, I would expect, unless one was a poet, would just use "sun" rather then "eye of heaven")

Any insight would be appreciated and intriguing to see.

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    An earlier date of occurrence of this phrase: The Fairy Queen, Edmund Spenser, published in 1590. en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Faerie_Queene
    – LPH
    Oct 13, 2020 at 16:48
  • @LPH "Her angel's face, As the great eye of heaven, shined bright, And made sunshine in the shady place; Did never mortal eye behold such heavenly grace."--Wonderful stuff! Thank you. Oct 13, 2020 at 16:53

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OED, Third Edition, provides textual evidence for the concept, expressed variously, from J. Trevisa's translation, composed sometime before 1398, of De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the properties of things), by Bartholomaeus Anglicus.

Sense 11a of 'eye' (entry updated June 2014):

Chiefly poetic and in literary contexts. The sun (also heaven) as the source of light, conceived as an eye or as possessing eyes.
Similarly eye of day (also eye of heaven, eye of the world, etc.); eyes of heaven: the stars, esp. seen in the night sky; eye of night: the moon.

J. Trevisa's translation:

Þe sonne is þe yȝe of þe worlde. [The sun is the eye of the world.]

Conflation of heaven and the sun in OED's derived sense, "as the source of light, conceived as an eye or as possessing eyes", may embellish the particular cases, but OED draws what could be considered an earlier attestation more closely matching the phrasing of interest from Chaucer's Troilus & Criseyde.

The quotation from Chaucer, although probably not evidenced in print until sometime before 1498, was probably composed around 1385:

The dayes honour and the heuenes eye, The nyghtes fo al this clepe I the sonne. [The day's honor and the heaven's eye, the night's foe: all these I call the sun.]

The phrasing of the concept of the sun as an eye, specifically "heaven's eye" or "eye of heaven", likely depends more on metrical or narrative exigency than any putative differentiation of sense.

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