‘Sonnet 118′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. This poem is dedicated to an unknown young man. Readers can enjoy more than 100 other sonnets focused on this same person in which the speaker discussing his love for this “Fair Youth” and everything he’d do for him. Some of the sonnets border on an obsession, while others are slightly more critical of the Youth’s behavior. To this day, scholars are unsure who this young man was or if he even existed at all. In this particular poem, the relationship is on unsteady ground.
Explore Sonnet 118
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing how overwhelming his love with the Fair Youth is. The young man is so sweet that he, as someone who’s about to become sick, turns to emetics to prevent that illness. He looks to new friends and new lovers to take him away from the cloying sweetness of the Youth’s presence. While uses an extended metaphor of poisons and cures, the speaker describes how this was all a big mistake. That “bitter” new potions he turned to make things worse. They appear to have poisoned him and further degraded his relationship with the Youth.
Throughout ‘Sonnet 118,’ the poet engages with themes of love and change. There is a change festering at the heart of the relationship between the speaker and the Fair Youth. For more than 100 sonnets, it’s been a beautiful, unbreakable relationship. Now, in this sonnet and the ones preceding it, things appear to be changing. The speaker describes the overpowering nature of the Youth’s love and sweetness in this poem and how he turned to other sources to try to relieve himself of it. But, the cure proves to be more damaging than the disease, and he finds himself regretting his choice.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 118’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem. It takes the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. This means that it follows a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It is written in iambic pentameter, the most common of all English meters. In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.
The last couplet usually comes after the turn or volta. This is the pattern that most Shakespearean sonnets follow, although there are always a few instances in which the meter or rhyme is broken. In this case, the turn summarizes everything that the speaker learned about his choices.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 118’. These include but are not limited to examples of:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “sicken to shun sickness” in line four and “learn” and “lesson” in line thirteen.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially effective descriptions that engage readers’ senses. For example, “Even so, being full or your ne’er-cloying sweetness, / To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines seven and eight as well as nine and ten.
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 lines of ‘Sonnet 118,’ the speaker begins by suggesting again that things are not going well between himself and the Fair Youth. He says that to make their appetites for one another “more keen,” they’ve turned to other acquaintances. This should, in theory, make their emotions more powerful and perhaps return them to one another. This is an allusion to the administering of emetics or any type of substance to make one throw up. It was used to keep one from getting sick, renew the palette (as the speaker suggests), and counteract the effects of poison. The speaker alludes to this in lines three and four.
Even so, being full or your ne’er-cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding;
And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetness
To be diseas’d, ere that there was true needing.
In the fifth line, the speaker says that he’s never sated by the youth’s presence or “sweetness.” His palate is full of the young man’s sweetness, but it’s so rich that it is “cloying.” In order to refresh his mind and heart, he’s turned to “bitter sauces.” This is a reference to how he’s turned to other sources for refreshment. This could mean he’s taken in new friends and acquaintances or moved on to new lovers. Disguised in Shakespearean verse, the speaker is saying that he and the Youth are becoming tired of one another.
In the next lines, the speaker declares himself “diseas’d.” He’s not entirely happy with his choices. He’s made himself sick before he actually became sick, or “ere that there was true needing.”
Thus policy in love, to anticipate
The ills that were not, grew to faults assur’d,
And brought to medicine a healthful state,
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cur’d;
But thence I learn, and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.
In the sestet, the speaker says that before there was no sickness, but now due to the mistakes they’ve both made, there are “faults assur’d.” He tried to remedy a relationship that was already healthy and has now, by reaching out to others, damaged what the two already had. It should be noted that the Youth has been participating in the same thing.
The final couplet sums up the speaker’s actions and what he now feels about himself. He has learned that the metaphorical drugs he used in order to cure his lovesickness have now poisoned him. His actions have further negatively impacted their relationship with one another.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 118’ should also consider reading some other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 40’ – discusses the speaker’s recent choice to sleep with the Youth’s mistress.
- ‘Sonnet 29’ – depicts the speaker’s depression as he despairs his fate and his difference from other luckier men.
- ‘Sonnet 101’ – directed at the speaker’s muse who is failing to provide him with needed inspiration.