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Shakespeare Sonnets 118: "Like as, to make our appetites more keen" and 80: "O! how I faint when I of you do write"

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

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

Sonnet 118 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence 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 on Sonnet 118: "Like as, to make our appetites more keen"

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.

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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.

Shakespeare Sonnet 80: "O! how I faint when I of you do write"

The speaker in sonnet 80 is once again examining the nature of his most important subject, love in regard to his talent, as he recognizes the intervention of not only the muse, but also the Divine Muse or God.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 80: "O! how I faint when I of you do write"

In sonnet 80 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is addressing God (or the Divine Muse), although he never uses any term to indicate so, except for the word "spirit" in the first quatrain, which is here referring to the individual soul.

The speaker uses the same the technique that he has employed before: he segments his "self " into parts in order to praise while still remaining humble.

The speaker is undoubtedly aware of the concept of the religious trinity which explains the nature of the Divine Creator's Ultimate Reality as tripartite: the force outside of nature, the force informing nature, and the force inside nature.

The Hindus refer to this force as Sat-Tat-Aum, and the tradition of the Judeo-Christian religion refers to it as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

Sonnet 80: "O! how I faint when I of you do write"

O! How I faint when I of you do write
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth—wide as the ocean is,—
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wrack’d, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride:
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this;—my love was my decay.

Reading of Sonnet 80

Commentary on Sonnet 80: "O! how I faint when I of you do write"

This speaker is reminding his inner self of the most important aspects of his God-given talent. He knows the importance of maintaining a level of humbleness that will allow him to continue to perfect and keep his works genuine and guileless.

First Quatrain: A Humble Weakness

O! How I faint when I of you do write
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!

In the first quatrain, the speaker exclaims,"O! How I faint when I of you do write." He is overcome with a weakness that keeps him humble. This speaker is essentially dividing his consciousness into two parts, referring to one as "I" and the other as "he."

The "better spirit" refers to the muse or his native talent; he separates his various "selves" in order to explore them.

The entity becomes tripartite, representing the physical, mental, and spiritual levels of being that all unite to produce fine art. The speaker’s self qua self becomes "tongue-tied" when "speaking of the fame" of the Over-Soul’s Divinity.

He spends "all of his might" praising the Divine, and thus he transforms into a humble servant as he compares his lesser talents to those of God, or the Over-Soul or Super Muse.

Second Quatrain: Litotes of Reason

But since your worth—wide as the ocean is,—
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.

The speaker then avers that the value of the Divine is "wide as the ocean," clearly an understatement (litotes of classical rhetoric), yet suitable for his purposes. The humble speaker then metaphorically likens himself to a small boat which competes with a much larger vessel.

The speaker asserts that the Divine includes and recognizes all from the humblest to the "proudest." His own small boat, which he labels a "saucy bark" and claims its inferiority, still finds favor enough to "appear" with the "proudest" on this all-encompassing sea.

This sea, of course, metaphorically represents the art world and by extension the entire cosmos.

Third Quatrain: Muse Inspired Grace

Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wrack’d, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride:

Addressing the Divine, the speaker avers that even the smallest aid offered by His Greatness "will hold me up afloat." This upliftment happens simultaneously with his other self "rid[ing]" "upon your soundless deep."

While the muse remains silent, the speaker is permitted voice by the same grace that creates the muse and his own creative self. The talented speaker thus demonstrates the unity of the muse and his own creative self, even as he has separated them, merely for the purpose of examining them.

Again, the speaker displays his humility by claiming, "I am a worthless boat," at the same time averring, "He (his "self" that functions as the muse) appears "of tall building and of goodly pride." This convenient splitting allows the speaker to remain humble yet retain his pride.

The Couplet: A Triumvirate of Self

Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this;—my love was my decay.

The couplet ties the tripartite self together again with the speaker’s usual and most important subject—"love."

If the writing self, who is the most ordinary self, fails while his muse succeeds, then the ordinary self gets the better part of it all because he has remained true to his love, and they continue united as they venture forth aging together.

The speaker may at times find himself leaning in a direction that he does not find helpful. As he becomes too proud of his own abilities, he knows that he must temper that pride in order to remain open to possibilities for his creations.

He depends on the Great Muse—or God—and he continues to remind himself that his accomplishments remain dependent on his Creator.

Although this speaker never becomes overly solicitous through his prayers, he nevertheless offers the kinds of prayers that are indistinguishable from clarified dramatic performances.

He uses his talent to praise his Creator in ways that remain unique to his own individual talent. He knows well that he must remain humble, and as he continues to pursue his art, he also continues to pursue his path through life that leads to better, more informed art.

He has long eschewed the fake and paltry puffery in favor of genuine works that will become classic as they portray what is real and lasting for each human heart and mind.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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