What's he saying?
"What potions have I drunk of Siren tears, / Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,"
How have I been so bewitched by treacherous things,
"Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears, / Still losing when I saw myself to win!"
Becoming overwhelmed with hopes and fears, and losing everything even though I thought I was successful.
"What wretched errors hath my heart committed, / Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!"
My heart made just poor judgments when it thought it was happier than it had ever been.
"How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted, / In the distraction of this madding fever!"
My eyes have gone crazy, as if they are afflicted by a fever of insanity.
"O benefit of ill! now I find true / That better is by evil still made better;"
But the good news is, now it seems that what was wonderful when I left is even better after all I have done wrong;
"And ruined love, when it is built anew, / Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater."
Love that has been destroyed and built up again is better the second time.
"So I return rebuked to my content, / And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent."
After all I've done wrong, I return to my happiness and find it better than I left it.
Why is he saying it?
In Sonnet 119, the theme of the previous sonnets is continued; the speaker defends himself for philandering, having returned to his beloved fair lord. Sonnets 109-113 also dealt with the theme of separation due to a betrayal. In Sonnet 117, the context of an accusal by the fair lord is set up with the opening lines, "Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all, / Wherein I should your great deserts repay;" the poet has been neglectful of all the ways in which he might repay the fair lord's beauty and wonderful presence. He had been suffering from an infatuation that he likens to a "madding fever," but in the end the goal was unattainable and he returns.
The opening line of this sonnet refers to the Sirens, mythical maidens who lived on an island in the Mediterranean and lured sailors to their doom with their beautiful singing. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus tells the Phaeaceans about the Sirens; he was warned about them by the goddess Circe. He follows Circe's advice and avoids being lured in by the Sirens by tying himself to the mast of his ship and plugging his sailor's ears with wax. Perhaps the speaker references their "tears" since, though he was seduced by a woman, he was eventually able to escape and returned to the fair lord.
The theme of alchemy runs through this sonnet; this "science" of the times was the process of turning base metals into gold. Line 2 describes the "siren tears" as being "distilled from limbecks foul as hell within." To the Renaissance reader, this line would bring to mind images of alchemy; "limbecks" were the flasks in which liquids were distilled in order to be purified. The final line of the sonnet also hints at alchemy, when the speaker wonders at how he has gained three times what he lost by acting in an "evil way." The alchemist's ideal was to increase wealth by transforming base metals into gold, investing in expensive equipment to make this possible.
Sexual undertones pervade Sonnet 119; it seems that in his philandering, the speaker has contracted a sexual disease from a woman. "Limbecks," mentioned in line 2, have a shape that resembles genitalia; the idea that they are "foul as hell within" echoes Sonnet 144, in which the poet describes the dark lady's vagina using similar language: "To win me soon to hell, my female evil / Tempteth my better angel from my side, / And would corrupt my saint to be a devil, / Wooing his purity with her foul pride."
Medical imagery appears, supporting the idea that the speaker has contracted a sexually transmitted disease and must now treat it. Line 3 describes how he spent his time away from the fair lord "applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears;" the word "applying" is used as if the hopes and fears were a lotion applied to a sore or boil. They are meant to heal each other, but must be healed themselves. In line 8 he describes "the distraction of this madding fever!" as if his infatuation were an illness that caused delirium and insanity.