William Shakespeare – 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 ills thrice more than I have spent.

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.

The 1609 Quarto Version

WHat potions haue I drunke of Syren teares
Diſtil’d from Lymbecks foule as hell within,
Applying feares to hopes,and hopes to feares,
Still looſing when I ſaw my ſelfe to win?
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilſt it hath thought it ſelfe ſo bleſſed neuer?
How haue mine eies out of their Spheares been                                                                                  fitted
In the diſtraction of this madding feuer?
O benefit of ill,now I find true
That better is, by euil ſtill made better.
And ruin’d loue when it is built anew
Growes fairer then at firſt,more ſtrong,far greater.
   So I returne rebukt to my content,
   And gaine by ills thriſe more then I haue ſpent.


1. What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,

potions = medicinal draughts, liquid medicinal mixtures. Often associated in Shakespeare with poisons.
Siren tears – The Sirens were mythical maidens or goddesses who lived on an unspecified island in the Mediterranean and lured sailors to their doom. Their story is first told in Homer’s Odyssey (circa 750 BC), by Odysseus in his tale to the Phaeaceans of his wanderings over the ocean pathways since the defeat of Troy. He tells how Circe, the goddess, describes the Sirens to him:

First you will meet the Sirens, who cast a spell on every man who goes their way. Whoso draws near unwarned and hears the Sirens’ voices, by him no wife or little child shall ever stand, glad at his coming home; for the Sirens cast a spell of penetrating song, sitting within a meadow. But by their side is a great heap of rotting human bones; fragments of skin are shrivelling on them. Therefore sail on, and stop your comrades ears with sweet wax kneaded soft, that none of the rest may hear. As for yourself, if you desire to listen, see that they bind you hand and foot on the swift ship, upright upon the mast block – round the mast let the rope’s ends be wound – that so with pleasure you may hear the Sirens’ song. XII.39-52.

Odysseus follows Circe’s advice, binds himself to the mast and stops the sailors’ ears with wax. He tells how he listens to the Sirens singing.

But when we were as far away as a voice will carry, and swiftly were driving onward, our speeding ship as it drew nigh did not escape the Sirens’ notice, and thus they lifted up their penetrating song:
‘Come hither, come, Odysseus, whom all praise, great glory of the Achaeans! Bring in your ship and listen to our voices. For none has ever passed us by in a black ship till from our lips he heard ecstatic song, then went his way rejoicing, and with larger knowledge. For we know all that the Argives and the Trojans suffered on the plain of Troy at the gods’ behest; we know whatever may befall upon the bounteous earth’. So spoke they, sending forth their beauteous voices, and my heart longed to listen. 
XII.184-193. Trans. G.H.Palmer.

Odysseus’ comrades refuse to untie him, and he escapes the deadly fate of landing on the island and becoming part of the heap of rotting bones.

It is not immediately apparent why Shakespeare uses the term Siren tears, unless it is in reference to the tears of disappointment which the Sirens perhaps shed when they fail to entrap a man who comes close enough to fall within their grasp. In all probability Shakespeare would have known the tale from Homer, since his play Troilus and Cressida published in 1609, reveals his close acquaintance with the Homeric myths. In addition, Chapman, whom he must have known, was busy translating Homer at the time, and specifically refers to the story of the Sirens in The Widow’s Tears (1604-5) a play which Shakespeare probably knew:

But by your leave, Lycus, Penelope is not so wise as her husband Ulysses, for he, fearing the jaws of the Syren, stopped his ears with wax against her voice. They that fear the adder’s sting will not come near her hissing. I.2.13-15.

Chapman gets the details wrong, which is of no great importance, but it shows that he expected his audience to be familiar with the tale. (I have extended the quotation above because of its echoes with Sonn.112:
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of others’ voices, that my adder’s sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.

The use of the words stopped and adder’s is fairly unusual, both words only occurring in Sonn 112. The combination of Syrens with the ‘tears’ of the title of Chapman’s play add an extra curiously echoing marriage of words with the words of this sonnet. Chapman might have been one of the critics of Shakespeare’s verse and conduct.)

In this context the use here of the phrase Siren’s tears is suggestive of tears of regret and repentance for having entered into a liaison or liaisons which brought only disillusionment and sorrow. In general Sirens were regarded, then as now, as dangerous and treacherous, and clearly the myth hides, not too deeply, the traditional and deep rooted male fear of female power. The poet is intimating that he allowed himself to be bewitched by other lovers, and drove himself to a frenzy of infatuation by his pursuit of them.2. Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,

Distilled from limbecks – limbecks or alembics were the flasks used by alchemists to distil liquids in order to make them more pure. Successive distillation in theory would provide a more potent elixir. In this case the elixir (the Sirens’ tears) is deeply tainted by the foulness of the distilling apparatus. Sexual references may well be active in these lines, since the shape of alembics was suggestive of genitalia, and sexual disgust is recorded in King Lear in similar language. (See the illustration above. The alembic is the vessel above the man’s head).

Down from the waist they are Centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit, beneath is all the fiends: There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning scalding, stench, consumption. KL.IV.6.124-9.

The possible implication is that he has contracted a sexual disease through consorting with a mistress. Sonnet 144, which has similarities of language and equates the woman’s vagina with foulness and hell, is especially relevant here.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
(See notes to Sonnet 144). However the confusion of imagery in these two lines, which blend classical mythology with medicine, alchemy and Christian doctrines of perdition, is as much suggestive of mental instability as it is of the infatuated pursuit of fulfilment through sexual gratification.

Shakespeare uses the word limbeck only once elsewhere, in Macbeth. Alembic he does not use at all.

That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only 
Mac.I.7.65-7.3. Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears,Applying = laying on, as one applies poultices to the body in order to cure sores, boils, eruptions of the skin, and fevers. This was standard medical practice of the time. The fears and hopes are presumably those of losing or gaining a lover.4. Still losing when I saw myself to win!Always failing to achieve my desires even though I thought I was successful.
still = always.
when I saw myself to win = when I imagined that I was winning (a new lover); when I perceived myself (erroneously) to be on a winning streak. The imagery is from gambling and indicates the false delusions of the gambler, who always imagines that the next throw of the dice will repair his fortunes.5. What wretched errors hath my heart committed,wretched errors = misguided judgements, heresies, devotion to false idols6. Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!it = my heart.
so blessed never = more blessed and happy than it had ever been before.7. How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted,spheres = sockets. Also with a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy, a system still current in Shakespeare’s day. The stars and planets were all assigned spheres in which they revolved around the earth, which was placed in the centre of the universe. Compare
…….Thou rememberest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid’s music. 
The idea of madness and things being shot out of their true orbit is repeated in this sonnet.
 = thrown into a fit or paroxysm.8. In the distraction of this madding fever!The medical imagery continues. The poet compares himself to one who is afflicted by the frenzied motions and ravings of a person afflicted by fever.
distraction = frenzy, madness, delusion.9. O benefit of ill! now I find truebenefit of ill – in the fury of his madding fever all contradictions seem possible. Evil becomes good and good becomes evil, as in Macbeth’s violent imaginings of good and evil:
My thought …………
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

benefit – probably there is a glance here at the Latin root of the word, bene fit meaning ‘it becomes well’.
The exclamation and the declaration of discovery, rather like the ‘Eureka!’ of Archimedes, possibly is an echo of the expected declarations of the alchemists – ‘I have found the philosopher’s stone!’10. That better is by evil still made better;better… better = that which is already better (than its counterpart) is made even better. The first use of the word is as a noun, the second adverbial. There is probably a pun intended on the word bitter.
 = always; even.11. And ruined love, when it is built anew,ruined love = love which has ceased and is no more, like a ruined building.12. Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.fairer = more true, more beautiful, more intense.
more strong, far greater 
– the heaping up of comparatives and the construction of the line give the impression of climbing a great flight of stairs, from which one emerges at the top to discover a vista that is far fairer and more beautiful than it ever was before.13. So I return rebuked to my content,

So I return – i.e. from my travels, from my philandering, as in Sonnet 109:
That is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged 

rebuked = chastened by my experiences, chastised (by you, and by what has happened to me).
my content = that which contents me; my home of love.14. And gain by ills thrice more than I have spent.

by ills = by evil doing, by having suffered madness and fever, by misfortune.
thrice more
 = three times more. The suggestion of ill gotten gains trebling one’s outlay is perhaps a reference to the ideal of the alchemist, who hopes to increase his wealth by turning base metals to gold, thereby justifying all the expenditure on his distilleries and chemical apparatus. In fairness to the alchemist, however, it is worth noting that he emphasised strictly that only the pure of heart could achieve the transformation of substances into gold, and that any base motives would automatically negate the process.
content, spent
 – as in other sonnets, notably 1, 129 and 151, these words are surcharged with sexual innuendo.


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