'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being;
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing:
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad and in their badness reign.
The theme of this sonnet is a variant of the proverbial idea that 'There is small difference to the eye of the world in being nought and being thought so'. It links in also with ideas of the inadequacy of the world's judgements, the injustice of criticism, and, obliquely, with the often expressed cynicism that committing sin is no crime. The real crime is to be discovered committing it. This last idea is neatly expressed in Ben Jonson's poem 'To Celia', reproduced below.
We may also speculate that it is a poem that was written in answer to some antecedent situation, a situation in which perhaps the youth accepted grudgingly the poet's excuses of the last three sonnets, but still cited evidence from other accusers of the poet's supposed infidelities. Finally, in exasperation, the poet refuses to defend himself with any further argument, but he insists instead that he has a right to be himself, and to have his character freed from the dictatorial powers of those who would interpret it for him in terms of their own baseness.
There is a disturbing weakness in the argument of the poem, in that it fails to confront the contradiction that diverting oneself with a love for someone else, however just and pure, however unlike that implied by the knowing glances of the corrupted spies, is nevertheless a falling away from total devotion and commitment, a dereliction from the ideal so strenuously expressed in 116, for example. How can the youth be loved with the same fervour if half of the poet's energies are wasted on satisfying his own sportive blood, in following other liaisons, wherever they may lead him? Neither here nor anywhere else in the series is the dilemma resolved, and one is left with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the poet, like the youth, believes that fidelity can be compartmentalised.
In fact one's attention is distracted by the ethical problem of the world's frequent errors and how to come to terms with them. It is painful to be misjudged, especially as one does not even have the benefit of enjoying the pleasures one has supposedly stolen illicitly. Much better to have been bad in the first place, for if one is to be accused of fornication, one might at least have the pleasure of doing it. Such seems to be the argument of the poem, and one is tempted to look for some hint of the old adage that 'virtue is its own reward', but it does not appear. To be fair to the poet we should note that he never actually admits to wrongdoing, for his concern is mainly with wrong accusations. 'My frailties' and 'my sportive blood' are generalities which may be read as the imputations of vice put upon him by his accusers, even as the 'just pleasure' may be simply the pleasure of being just in one's actions. It may not be the pleasure of loving someone else.
However all this is somewhat unfair and it is a little unwise to demand that a poem say something other than that it evidently tries to say, for what to us may appear as contradictions may not have been seen in that light by the original participants. Probably the fact that there are contradictions gives more life to the poems than if they were all smooth and even throughout.
POEM TO CELIA
Come, my Celia, let us prove,
While we can, the sports of love.
Time will not be ours for ever,
He, at length, our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain;
Suns that set may rise again,
But if once we lose this light,
'Tis with us perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumour are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies,
Or his easier ears beguile,
Thus removed by our wile?
'Tis no sin love's fruits to steal,
But the sweet thefts to reveal;
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.
Ben Jonson, Volpone.III.5.
The 1609 Quarto Version
TIS better to be vile then vile eſteemed,
When not to be,receiues reproach of being,
And the iuſt pleaſure loſt,which is ſo deemed,
Not by our feeling,but by others ſeeing.
For why ſhould others falſe adulterat eyes
Giue ſalutation to my ſportiue blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer ſpies;
Which in their wils count bad what I think good?
Noe,I am that I am,and they that leuell
At my abuſes,reckon vp their owne,
I may be ſtraight though they them-ſelues be beuel
By their rancke thoughtes,my deedes muſt not be ſhown
Vnleſſe this generall euill they maintaine,
All men are bad and in their badneſſe raigne.