Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 express the concept in the vaster field of general human morality. In his most famous comedies, Volpone (pr. 1606, pb. 1607), Epicne, and The Alchemist (pr. 1610, pb. 1612), he represents gullible characters who are easily fooled by appearances and are at the mercy of scoundrels who take advantage of their uncritical acceptance of convincing language and their unpenetrating observational powers. His highly polished epigrams and eulogies often warn of art’s ability to deceive. It is ironic that this poem, whose theme is a praise of directness and lack of artifice, makes full use of artistic indirection and double entendre to praise the same thing in poetry.