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.