Sonnet 119: What Potions Have I Drunk Of Siren Tears

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 my self to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought it self so blessèd 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 ills thrice more than I have spent.

by William Shakespeare

Comments (4)

_________________ The poet continues his defence of past conduct. In looking back he perceives himself to have been suffering from a serious infatuation, which like a disease and maddening fever forced him to pursue an unattainable goal, as the alchemist pursues an unattainable dream of converting all base matter to gold. _________________
The mixture of images, which piles together references to medicine, alchemy, Odyssean travels, fevers, madness, shooting stars, heresy, hell, damnation, ruination and rebuilding, gives the impression of a chaos of feeling which has overwhelmed the speaker. He pursued a chimera and discovered that it led him nowhere. Returning to his beloved he sees that the object of his love is, if anything, more beautiful and true than it was before he left, and he puzzles over the paradox that his evil conduct has rewarded him with good.
It is difficult to assess how much a Renaissance reader, or the addressee, or the original circle of readers of these sonnets, would have picked up the references to alchemy and charlatanism. Limbecks and distillation would certainly point them in that direction, whereas to modern ears they are almost meaningless in that sense. There is little doubt that alchemy was well known, even though it was illegal in this country. Elizabeth herself at one stage employed an alchemist, Cornelius de Lannoy, who promised to provide her with 50,000 marks of pure gold per year for a moderate fee. Needless to say he was unsuccessful, and was eventually imprisoned in the Tower. If Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist is anything to go by, most of alchemy was pure charlatanism, intended only as a means of fleecing rich benefactors who hoped in time to become even richer. Many practicing alchemists were in fact skilled also at forging coins. The implication of all this for a reading of the sonnet is that the poet acknowledges that he has been engaged in duplicity, that the gold he hoped to find was a mirage, and that all his frenzied searching has at least enriched him by enabling him to recognise true virtue and true wealth. shakespeares-sonnets.com/
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