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Shakespeare Sonnet 118: "Like as, to make our appetites more keen"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 118: "Like as, to make our appetites more keen"

Sonnet 118 finds the speaker musing on odd bits of thought. Although he has become aware that using artificial stimulation cannot enhance is writing ability, he continues to muse on the notion that perhaps some outside potion might help boost his ardor.

The speaker, as most artists do from time to time, is experiencing a bit of burn out. But he continues to respect his ability, and he knows he must do only what will keep him productive. As he contemplates the nature of health, he returns to the notion that remaining faithful to his muse will assist him in retaining his own health, physically, mentally, and creatively.

Sonnet 118: "Like as, to make our appetites more keen"

Like as, to make our appetites more keen,
With eager compounds we our palate urge;
As, to prevent our maladies unseen,
We sicken to shun sickness when we purge;
Even so, being full of your ne'er-cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding;
And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetness
To be diseased, ere that there was true needing.
Thus policy in love, to anticipate
The ills that were not, grew to faults assured,
And brought to medicine a healthful state
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured;
But thence I learn and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

Reading of Sonnet 118

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 118 confesses to his muse that he has learned that the use of artificial stimuli to retain his ardor for writing is not effective.

First Quatrain: Comparatively Speaking

Like as, to make our appetites more keen,
With eager compounds we our palate urge;
As, to prevent our maladies unseen,
We sicken to shun sickness when we purge;

In the first quatrain of sonnet 118, the speaker compares his ability to retain his passion and enthusiasm for writing and therefore his ability to remain centered in his muse to the consumption of appetizers before meals and to implementation of preventative medicines.

Addressing his muse, he tells her that in order to retain his interest and craving, he commits certain acts, or exercises certain mental muscles, and he avers that those activities resemble those other physical activities.

Second Quatrain: Satiety

Even so, being full of your ne'er-cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding;
And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetness
To be diseased, ere that there was true needing.

The speaker then reports that when he becomes satiated with the "ne’er-cloying sweetness" of the muse, he finds he must use an appetizer in order to whet his satiated appetite in order to take in more of the musal's inspiration. But he also admits that those appetizers are "bitter sauces," not like the sweetness of his muse.

On the physical plane of existence, pairs of opposites rule: day/night, health/sickness, sweet/bitter, hot/cold, etc. The speaker is showing that he is quite human; he cannot appreciate all sweetness all of the time nor can he tolerate perfect health without experiencing sickness. Especially for his writer persona, he must experience both qualities of the pairs of opposites.

Thus, the speaker reports that after finding himself "sick of welfare," that is, faring well or being healthy all the time, he discovered that there was necessity "to be diseased." However, he did not actually do anything to bring on true illness, he only used a preventative medicine, which makes the patient ill in order to prevent a worse illness, for example, taking a vaccine. The patient may experience a slight fever or other symptoms, but these are far preferable to having the disease itself, or so the layman is led to believe.

Even so, the speaker is using all this as a metaphor. He does not mean that he took a physical medicine; he is referring only to a way of thinking; therefore, the medicine to which he refers is mental, his thinking process, not physical, not actually swallowing medicine.

Third Quatrain: Anticipation

Thus policy in love, to anticipate
The ills that were not, grew to faults assured,
And brought to medicine a healthful state
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured;

The speaker then applies his metaphor of taking a food appetizer and preventive medical remedy to the "policy in love." He mentally "anticipated" the "ills that were not," but in doing so, he did experience some flaws in his thinking, but luckily, the preventive medicine worked and "brought to medicine a healthful state."

If the speaker had, in fact, become ill, that is, sick of his muse to the point of abandoning her, he knows his writing ability would end. All artists must use techniques to keep themselves interested in their art so that they will continue to ply it, or they will lose their skill if they abandon it even for a short period.

The Couplet: Nixing the Artificial

But thence I learn and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

The speaker then concludes that he has learned his lesson: artificial stimuli are not the answer; they actually weaken the craving. His passion must be prompted by his deep spiritual urging because "drugs poison him that so fell sick of you." By allowing himself to feel satiated of the very inspiration that keeps him healthy, he sickens himself, and no outside remedy can help him.

The De Vere Society

Katherine Chiljan – Origins of the Pen Name, “William Shakespeare”

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes