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.
The poet continues his apologia for waywardness and unfaithfulness. This he does with an extended double simile of sharpening the appetite with aperitifs and the practice of avoiding future sickness by taking preventative medicines. The sonnet occurs within a group of five which do their best to account for the poet’s wilfulness and back-sliding. Having declared that love is eternal and unchanging in sonnet 116, he is now placed in the awkward situation of showing why he has not been true to the ideal. This sonnet is one of his attempts to rectify the situation and justify himself with arguments which inevitably have to be over-subtle and sophisticated. The youth has perhaps claimed that alteration and change in lovers is natural and justifiable. They need not therefore maintain eternal truthfulness. As evidence of this he cites the poet’s own moral turpitude and his willingness to roam and sail before the wind, an accusation which obviously hits home.
Whether or not we are prepared to accept the poet’s excuses depends more on our attitude to the youth and on our perception of how their mutual relationship has developed, rather than on any abstract and unsolicited moral principles. We probably tend to think that the youth has by this stage shown himself to be cynical, cold and very demanding in his love, and therefore it is not entirely inapropriate that he be paid back in his own coin. On the other hand it could be that the poet, on looking back over the escapades of which he has been accused, begins to think that he derived very little from them, and that they were comparable to taking a course of medicine. This interpretation would certainly be supported by the evident disgust of the next sonnet, and we should therefore not overstress the cranks and turns of argument which characterise his defence in this one. For if their love is to be resurrected, saved, rejuvenated or whatever, then reasons must be found for burying the past and starting afresh with an unblemished heart. In that sense the arguments may well be sincere, and believed in up to a point, for when discovered and confronted in flagante delicto what else is to be done but admit one’s error and turn the episodes into moral tracts which actually benefited the doer?
The 1609 Quarto Version
LIke as to make our appetites more keene
With eager compounds we our pallat vrge,
As to preuent our malladies vnſeene,
We ſicken to ſhun ſickneſſe when we purge.
Euen ſo being full of your nere cloying ſweetneſſe,
To bitter ſawces did I frame my feeding;
And ſicke of wel-fare found a kind of meetneſſe,
To be diſeaſ’d ere that there was true needing.
Thus pollicie in loue t’anticipate
The ills that were,not grew to faults aſſured,
And brought to medicine a healthfull ſtate
Which rancke of goodneſſe would by ill be cured.
But thence I learne and find the leſſon true,
Drugs poyſon him that ſo fell ſicke of you.
1. Like as, to make our appetites more keen,Like as = in the same way as we etc. The first quatrain is an extended simile of the poet’s behaviour towards the youth. ‘Just as we sharpen our appetite with aperitifs etc., or just as we take medicines to prevent illnesses, in just such a way I strayed from you and tried other lovers’.2. With eager compounds we our palate urge;eager = vinegary, sharp, pungent. (OED 1).
we our palate urge = we stimulate our palates (often with acidic flavoured appetizers). compounds however suggests medicines, and perhaps the imagery is that of medicinal cures for loss of appetite. Medically, a simple was a medicine which was composed of only one herb or a single substance, (OED.n.6.), hence the term was extended (usually in the plural), to mean herbs in general. Compounds were drugs made up by mixing together a variety of herbs and other substances. (OED.2.a.) Although OED gives no example earlier than 1611, from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (see below), there is an earlier use in Romeo and Juliet, dating from c.1595.
But I beseech your grace, without offence,–
My conscience bids me ask–wherefore you have
Commanded of me those most poisonous compounds,
Which are the movers of a languishing death; Cym.I.5.6-9.
I will try the forces
Of these thy compounds on such creatures as
We count not worth the hanging, Cym.I.5.18-20.
There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell. RJ.V.1.80-2.3. As, to prevent our maladies unseen,The reference is to taking a prophylactic medicine. The Elizabethans believed that certain illnesses might be prevented by taking medicines before the event of their occurrence. Purges and emetics were considered useful in this respect. However the natural effect of taking such doses was usually to make the person feel ill, hence we sicken to shun sickness by making use of such a regimen, we make ourselves ill, in order not to be ill in the future.
maladies unseen = illnesses which are as yet unseen because they still lie in the future.4. We sicken to shun sickness when we purge;when we purge = when we take a purge, or laxative. We make ourselves sick (ill) in order to avoid future illnesses. (See note above).5. Even so, being full of your ne’er-cloying sweetness,Even so = in just the same way. The opening simile is developed further. Lines 5-6 expand 1-2, and lines 7-8 develop 3-4.
your ne’er cloying sweetness – this is dangerously close to calling the youth sickly-sweet. He takes the trouble however, by insisting that the sweetness is ‘never cloying’, to lessen his obvious sense of tiredness. Since ‘to cloy’ means ‘to overfill, or to satiate with too much of the same thing’, there is a mild contradiction implied in stating that he is full with something that never can cause satiety.6. To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding;did I frame my feeding = I accustomed myself to eating (bitter sauces). The images relate to other lovers, who turned out to be bitter in aftertaste.7. And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetnesswelfare – printed ‘wel-fare’ in Q, underlining its basic meaning of faring well, being successful, continuing to live free of disaster, continuing in health, enjoying the good fortune of your love.
sick of welfare = being tired of my good fortune.
meetness = fittingness, suitability.8. To be diseased, ere that there was true needing.To be diseased – i.e. by taking purgatives or other medicines which make one feel ill.9. Thus policy in love, to anticipatepolicy = cunning, calculation of what is advantageous.
policy in love = political and practical calculations to benefit the advancement of love. As in 124 when the poet describes his love as being above politics:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-numbered hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with showers.10. The ills that were not, grew to faults assured,The ills that were not – perhaps the greatest ill (evil) would, in the politic calculations of love, be that of no longer loving.
grew to = engrafted itself to, grew into. The subject is ‘policy’.
faults assured = faults about which there can be no dispute, the faults of growing sick of you, and turning to other loves.
9-10 might be paraphrased as ‘Thus love, making various calculations to protect itself, and fearing for the future, itself grew to be full of maladies by trying to prevent those which did not yet exist’.11. And brought to medicine a healthful stateBrought to medicine = introduced to a course of medicine. The subject is still ‘policy’ from the previous line.
a healthful state = it is this, the healthful state, which is subjected to a course of medicine. Strictly speaking it is of course the person who enjoys that state who undergoes the treatment. Here, for poetic metaphor, it is the healthiness itself which suffers.12. Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured;Which – the healthful state.
rank of goodness = overgrown and sickly due to feeding on too much goodness. rank in this sense of coarsely luxuriant, or perhaps rancid and foul smelling, is used frequently in Shakespeare. Compare for example
…………….The seeded pride
That hath to this maturity blown up
In rank Achilles TC.I.3.318-20.
would by ill be cured = was potentially able to be cured by being made ill; desired to be cured by medicines.13. But thence I learn and find the lesson true,But thence = from this experience (of dosing myself, of being unfaithful).
and find the lesson true = the lesson that drugs poison the body, and that unfaithfulness poisons the soul. Perhaps a reference also to a lesson read in church from the gospels. Most parishioners would disregard them, except on rare occasions when a forceful event might make their relevance obvious.14. Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.
him = me, the writer. Or perhaps anyone who is foolish enough to become tired of you.
fell sick of – note how the medical imagery continues right through to the end. Here it has the additional meaning of ‘grew tired of you’.