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I'm reading Milton's Sonnet 21 and a couple of lines are unintelligible to me. Here is the full poem. The emboldened lines 5 and 6 are the ones I'm having trouble with:

Cyriack, whose Grandsire on the Royal Bench
    Of British Themis, with no mean applause
    Pronounc't, and in his volumes taught our Laws,
    Which others at their Bar so often wrench:
Today deep thoughts resolve with me to drench
    In mirth, that after no repenting draws;

    Let Euclid rest, and Archimedes pause,
    And what the Swede intend, and what the French.
To measure life learn thou betimes, and know
    Toward solid good what leads the nearest way;
    For other things mild Heav'n a time ordains,
And disapproves that care, though wise in show,
    That with superfluous burden loads the day,
    And, when God sends a cheerful hour, refrains.

If anyone could shed any light on how to parse those two lines I would be very grateful. Thanks!

1 Answer 1

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Milton is asking his friend Cyriack Skinner to take a brief break from studious pursuits. The opening stanza introduces Skinner, whose grandfather was the celebrated jurist Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the King's Bench under James I and author of the Institutes of the Lawes of England. The lines you're asking about, the opening lines of the second stanza, are Milton's invitation:

Today deep thoughts resolve with me to drench
    In mirth, that after no repenting draws;

The lines place the poem in the carpe diem tradition. Milton is asking Skinner to resolve to drench deep thoughts in mirth. That is, Skinner should set aside his studies for a while and go drinking: "Decide [for] today to get the dry thoughts that occupy your mind wet through merry-making." The with me indicates that Milton will be Skinner's companion in the resolution and/or the drinking.

The subsequent line about "what the Swede intend, and what the French" is an echo of another well-known carpe diem, Horace's Ode II xi 1–4:

Quid bellicosus Cantaber et Scythes,
Hirpine Quincti, cogitet Hadria
    divisus obiecto, remittas
    quaerere nec trepides

Translation:

Don’t ask what the warlike Spaniards are plotting,
or those Scythians, Quinctius Hirpinus,
the intervening Adriatic
keeps off, don’t be anxious

Horace goes on to invite Quinctius Hirpinus to "dum licet ... potamus," "drink while we can."

But Milton being Milton, sober-minded and Puritanical, he specifies that this should be the kind of merrymaking that after no repenting draws, i.e., does not cause one to feel remorse later. Drinking too much would lead to regrets, so Milton is making clear that he is not suggesting over-imbibing. In the first place, the invitation is limited to "today." Milton is not suggesting that Skinner abandon his cerebral pursuits for all time. Secondly, he asks Skinner merely to drench his thoughts, to get them thoroughly wet, not to drown them.

Finally, the sestet clarifies that Milton is asking Skinner to measure life. If Skinner does not take a break from his studies now and then, his life will be unbalanced. Milton is advising Skinner to follow the golden mean. He reinforces this classical ideal with Christian theology, saying that overwork is wise only in show. An ostentatious display of labor is false piety, because rest is ordained by God, who does not intend us to carry a superfluous burden.

The lines you're asking about are the fulcrum of the poem. They specify both what Milton is inviting Skinner to do (carpe diem) and the philosophy behind the invitation (the golden mean). The stanza uses these two classical traditions to move between the historically specific family biography of Skinner and the eternal truths of Milton's religious beliefs. A parallel movement is the one between earthly jurisprudence and the divine law. The phrase no repenting takes on additional meaning when interpreted from the Christian perspective of the sestet: Milton is assuring Skinner that life's pleasures are not necessarily sinful. Through his careful and harmonious balancing of these different ideals, Milton models for Skinner the judicious measure in which the latter can hold studying and carousing so as to achieve the solid good.

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Edit based on a comment from Gareth Rees, since deleted:

Milton makes extensive use of anastrophe, the inversion of the grammatical order of words, in the lines you're asking about. One way to reorder the phrases to make them clearer is:

Today, resolve with me to drench deep thoughts in [the kind of] mirth that draws no repenting after [it].

Another possible order, making slightly different meaning, is:

Resolve to drench deep thoughts with me today in [the kind of] mirth that draws no repenting after [it].

The first ordering suggests that today Skinner, along with Milton, should resolve to go out drinking; the second, that Skinner should resolve to go out drinking with Milton today. Further reorderings would yield different permutations of whether Skinner should make the resolution alone or in concert with Milton, and whether today is the day to drink or just the day to make the resolution.

Yet another reading is to take that in line 6 to refer to the act of resolving. If I say to a family member, "Please take the trash out—that would be helpful," the that refers back to the act of taking the trash out. So here, Milton's lines could be interpreted to say that resolving to take a short break from studies would not lead to repentance later. The unconventional syntax enables this kind of ambiguity, with the lines having several possible interpretations depending on how one chooses to parse them. But since there's no definite way to choose one meaning over another, all these possible meanings are present at the same time, adding to the force of the invitation.

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