Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
If one accepts this “symbolic” interpretation of “Still to Be Neat,” this elegant little song becomes a typical statement of Ben Jonson’s position on the nature of art and language. Jonson lived in a time when the natural philosophy of thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, who were attempting to develop what would today be called a scientific view of reality, engaged in a critique of figural language. When poets employ symbolism and figures of speech to ornament the expression of their meaning, they are moving away from direct reference—from the clean and uncluttered literal designation which would be the ideal of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.
This distrust of linguistic embellishment, of poetic fancy and ornament, was based on a philosophy that placed nature before art. Western civilization’s new-found confidence in its ability to know the natural world through direct observation and experimentation was replacing a medieval approach to nature as a sort of text written by God. Jonson seems to accept the change in values and tries to reflect it in the rhetoric of his poetry. As Arthur F. Marotti says in his article “All About Jonson’s Poetry,” “Jonson reveals an hostility to sensuous imagery as well as metaphoric inventiveness, which are to him impediments to communication, a disguising of subject matter he would like to represent in a more direct way.”
Jonson’s great comedies...
(The entire section is 340 words.)
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