‘Sonnet 119‘ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is directed towards a young man known as the “Fair Youth” and picks up where the previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 118,’ left off. This person has never been identified in real life, nor has the true nature of the poet’s relationship with him been uncovered. This has led many readers and scholars to speculate about Shakespeare’s sexuality or if the poet is meant to be the speaker in these lines at all. This poem is one of the first to allude to the next series of sonnets in which he focuses on the Dark Lady.
Explore Sonnet 119
In the first lines of the sonnet, the speaker apologizes for what he’s done and admits it without shying away from his mistake. He seems to allude to the possibility that he’s contracted a disease of some kind from this person, and this is only one reason why he regrets the relationship. He believes that despite this, he’s going to rebuild his relationship with the Fair Youth, and it’s going to be stronger than ever.
Throughout ‘Sonnet 119,’ the poet engages with themes of forgiveness, illness, and change. He knows that what he has done is quite bad, stepping away from the relationship with the Fair Youth. With his apologies, he tries to make up for it. But, there are consequences. Through his use of medical and alchemic imagery, the poet suggests that his speaker has contracted some kind of disease. This physical disease is juxtaposed with the obsessive love he has for the Fair Youth and then how he’s changed due to his treatment of him. The relationship is not the same as it was when the 126 Fair Youth sonnets began, but it still exists.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 119’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that 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 fourth line of the poem is a great example of iambic pentameter at its best/most accurate.
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.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 119’. These include but are not limited to examples:
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse, for example, “O benefit of ill, now I find true” and “Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “hopes” and “hopes” in line three and “fairer,” “first,” and “far” in line twelve.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines seven and eight.
- Allusion: the speaker alludes to medical imagery, alchemy, and sexually transmitted diseases in this poem.
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!
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 119,’ the speaker begins by restarting the defense of his past conduct. He has had potions of “siren tears” that were “Distilled from limbecks,” or flasks used by alchemists. His siren’s tears were tainted by this apparatus, and it’s unclear whether or not in these lines the poet was considering sexual innuendoes. It’s possible that the speaker had an affair with a woman, and it’s this relationship that he’s regretting. Some scholars believe that he contracted a sexual disease. He looks back on what he’s done and apologizes for how he’s betrayed the youth. His relationship is falling apart, and he is filled with regret because of it.
What wretched errors have my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have my eyes out of their sheres been fitted
In the distraction of this maddening fever!
In the next lines, he says that he’s made errors and had poor judgment about a great deal. This is all because he turned to another source he thought could bring him happiness. He’s gone crazy if he’s afflicted by some kind of “maddening fever.” These images should be familiar to anyone who has read the previous sonnets in which Shakespeare used medical allusions to emotional problems. This might support the theory that he’s contracted a sexual disease.
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 third and final quatrain adds that there is some good news in all of this, despite the fact that his relationship with the Fair Youth is falling apart. It seems that the love he had with the Youth will be even stronger when it’s rebuilt, or so the speaker says. “Ruined love” is “more strong, far greater.”
He adds that now that he’s done so much wrong, he’s returning to his happiness and finding it “more than I have spent.” Meaning, that it is better than he left it.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 119’ should also consider reading some of the other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 17’ – the last of the procreation sonnets in which the speaker makes a plea to the Youth. He speaks about how his writing is only going to go so far.
- ‘Sonnet 30’ – describes the speaker’s depression and what it is that lifts him out of it.
- ‘Sonnet 94’ – suggests that the Fair Youth is on the verge of losing his admirable nature. The speaker describes who is in God’s good graces and who is not.