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.
The “Syren teares,” with which Sonnet 119 begins, allude to the classical Sirens, mythical sisters, who on Italy’s southern coast allured seamen to their death through song. They were originally two in Sophocles and in Homer’s Odyssey, but their number was expanded to eight by Plato, for whom they represented the music of the spheres: Plutarch explains that, “for as touching the motions and revolutions of the eight heavenly Sphaeres, hee [Plato] hath attributed as presidents unto them so many Syrenes in number, and not Muses,” to which Menephylus the Peripatetic objected, claiming that, “Syrenes are daemons, or powers not verie kinde and good, nor beneficiall.” The Sirens were associated with the underworld because, having drowned themselves after the escape of Ulysses, their “song and musicke . . imprinteth in the soules which depart from hence . . [and] wander in that other world after death, a vehement affection to divine and celestiall things;” 1 they were also identified through Isaiah’s “sirenae” (13.22; Vulgate) with agents of destruction. Since the Greeks often put figures of Sirens on tombs to represent mourners, they were associated with tears and grief; compare Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, 192, where the choosing of a friend is fraught, because “Syrens teares doe threaten mickle griefe.” 2 In Francis Meres translation of Luis de Granada’s A Sinners Guide “the singing of Syrens . . [is] sweet, but a deadly potion.” 3
It is with a “potion” that Shakespeare opens the sonnet: “What Potions haue I drunke of Syren teares / Distil’d from Lymbecks foule as hell within.” In the process of distilling the alchemical apparatus comprised a bottom cucurbit or glass sphere which was heated, and which was surmounted by a glass vessel, the “still” or “Head” (properly the alembic or limbeck), through whose “nose” the distillation was received. The two parts were “fitted” together and sealed by ‘lute of wisdom.’ The result was a ‘spirit of first extraction.’ The conceit of the eye as a limbeck that distills tears of love heated from the furnace of the poet’s heart was standard among poets and sonneteers; Thomas Lodge in Phillis develops the whole metaphor: “My loue doth serue for fire, my hart the fornace is, / The aperries of my sighes augment the burning flame, / The Limbique is mine eye that doth distill the same,” while Robert Tofte’s Alba talks of, “what my sad eye / Distils from Lymbeck of a bleeding Hart,” and Barnabe Barnes, having termed his love a “Syren,” exclaims, “From my loues lymbeck still still’d teares, oh teares!” 4
As in Sonnet 111, where “Potions of Eysell” are taken as antidotes to bitterness, here the poet has drunk “potions” of bitter grief, distilled through the eyes as limbecks from a globular cucurbit, which within is “foule as hell,” hell being an infernal sphere full of foul spirits and the dwelling place of the Sirens. 5 Potions are draughts taken as remedies: the poet uses fear as an antidote to hope and hope as an antidote to allay fear. Whatever was thought a gain remains a loss always (“still;” with a hint of “still” as an alembic). He sees his heart, the cucurbit, guilty of “wretched errors,” hellish mistakes, which it “committed,” even as it thought itself never “so blessed.” How, he finally asks, have the eyes “out of their Spheares bene fitted / In the distraction of this madding feuer?” The shape of “bene fitted” anticipates the shape and meaning of “benefit” (line 9). Firstly the eyes have been pressured from their sockets (“spheares”) by a high temperature “within,” that causes “distraction” and delirium (“madding feuer”). 6 Secondly the eyes (limbecks) are not matched (“fitted”) to their sphere, the cucurbit of the heart, since they are distracted by a “madding feuer.” Thirdly the eyes have been “fitted” or placed out of their orbits which are the spheres of the Sirens, resulting in distraction and madness. Finally, since the Sirens’ music of the spheres causes the heart to fall into “most ardent and furious fits of love,” the effect on the poet is a state of distraction and madness. 7 While a “distraction” is a madness, it suggests a faulty ‘extraction’ in the process of distilling: the poet’s “distraction” is the first extraction of his “madding feuer,” which is the heavier element contained in his heart as cucurbit.
The sestet’s exclamation, “O benefit of ill,” is a paradox based on bene + fit = well made: something evil makes something good. It was a lesson learned in the last lines of the prior Sonnet 118, “but thence I learne and find the lesson true, / Drugs poyson him: that so fell sicke of you.” Here the poet finds confirmed the truth, “That better is, by euil still made better;” either “better” can be made even (“still”) better through evil, or “better” can, through the “still” or limbeck of evil, be made even better. The consolation is that love that is broken down (“ruin’d”), when “built anew,” is found purer (“Growes fairer”) as well as “more strong, far greater.” The couplet sees the poet turning himself about (“returne”) as he uses the lesson learned to chastise himself (“rebukt” with its allied sense of ‘rebouked’ or ‘rebulked,’ grown larger). His “content,” his ‘happiness’ as well as ‘that which is contained in him,’ is the larger, because he has gained through “ills” a threefold “return” of “fairer,” “more strong” and “far greater,” than he has “spent.”
119.1. Plato, Republic 617, B.C; Plutarch, The Philosophie, commonlie called, the Morals Written by the learned Philosopher Plutarch of Chaerona. Translated out of Greeke into English, and conferred with the Latine translations and the French by Philemon Holland (London: Arnold Hatfield, 1603) 797-8 passim.
119.2. Lodge, Rosalynde B2r.
119.3. Luis de Granada, The Sinners Guyde. A Worke Containing the whole regiment of a Christian life, deuided into two Bookes: Wherein Sinners are Reclaimed from the By-path of vice and destruction, and brought vnto the high-way of euer-lasting happinesse . . nowe perused, and digested into English, by Francis Meres (London: James Roberts: 1598) 347.
119.4. Lodge, Phillis 37.9-11; Robert Tofte, Alba. The Months Minde of a Melancholy Lover, diuided into three parts: By R.T. Gentleman (London: Felix Kingston, 1598) A2r; Barnes, Parthenophil 49.9.
119.5. Compare LC 288-9, “what a hell of witch-craft lies / In the small orb of one perticular teare.”
119.6. Compare Ham. 1.5.17, “Make thy two eyes like Starres, start from their Spheres.”
119.7. Plutarch, Morals 798.