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Shakespeare Sonnet 119

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction, Text, and Paraphrase of Sonnet 119

The speaker in sonnet 119 does not directly address his muse but instead is lamenting to himself his faults and griefs, while intending that the muse overhear his confession.

Sonnet 119

What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted,
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruined love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
So I return rebuked to my content,
And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.

Paraphrase

I have often sobbed in vain, attempting to change one vile emotion to another and back again, as I continued to lose my true self in such vain atrocities. I have made many errors because of a crooked heart that never accepted its own blessings. Why is it that I have allowed my eyes to rule reason turning it into madness? I seem to believe that evil could beget a better outcome than committed truth, beauty, and love. Renewed love continues to grow and become stronger after ruined acts have tried to ruin it. But then I can retake my own best interests after having been disciplined by error that will teach me three times as much as a single mistake made without content.

Reading of Sonnet 119

Commentary

In sonnet 119, the speaker is again examining the "wretched errors," which his "heart committed" but from which he learns a valuable lesson.

First Quatrain: Failed Thought as a Concoction

What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!

The reader will note that both the first and second quatrains are exclamatory questions, something like the outburst, "What is wrong with me!" He exclaims that he has been a loser in times when he thought he would win, and he blames the losing outcome on having "drunk of Siren tears / Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within."

The speaker is metaphorically describing his inner failure of thought as a concoction that an alchemical sorcerer would manufacture in attempting to turn a base metal into gold. The speaker, of course, is referring to his thoughts and feelings: he has tried to turn "fears to hopes" and "hopes to fears." Yet for all his inner turmoil, he has only become bogged down in error.

Second Quatrain: Sidetracked by Gross Error

What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted,
In the distraction of this madding fever!

The "wretched errors" of his heart allowed him to overlook that well-known fact that he has always been "blessed." He has allowed himself to lose his intuition while engaging in superficiality. This whorl of flaws seemed to cause "[his] eyes out of their spheres to be fitted," that is, he has misplaced vision. He has allowed himself to become sidetracked by a "madding fever." Out of gross error, he has looked in the wrong places for the inspiration that he needs to complete his work.

Just Emily Dickinson averred that the things of the world "hold so," the Shakespearean speaker is finding those world holding situations quite troubling. That he must face his issues he knows; therefore, he complains as he pinpoints his errors and contemplates what he must do about them.

Third Quatrain: Worldly Pairs of Opposites

O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruined love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.

The third quatrain finds the speaker exclaiming again, but this time his exclamation answers his earlier exclamatory questions. He discovers that the illness caused by his earlier errors is actually helpful, and he exclaims, "O benefit of ill!" He understands again that the pairs of opposites that operate on the physical level of existence can, in fact, become valuable teachers.

The speaker finally understands, "That better is by evil still made better." In order to comprehend the good and the true, the artist needs to have the contrast of the bad and the false, which is evil. The speaker continues his analogy by likening the comparison to love: "ruin’d love, when it is built anew, / Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater."

The Couplet: Gaining Through Adversity

So I return rebuked to my content,
And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.

The speaker then avers that after he comes back to his "content" which is his own level of spiritual understanding and his own conscience, he realizes how much he has gained. His own sphere of activity, including his muse, offers him at least three times the enjoyment of other worldly endeavors.

. . .

For a brief introduction to the 154-sonnet sequence, please visit "Overview of the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence."

Roger Stritmatter – He Who Takes the Pain to Pen the Book: The Poetry of the 17th Earl of Oxford

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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