Still to Be Neat

by Ben Jonson

Start Free Trial

The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

“Still to Be Neat” is a song sung by the character Clerimont in one of Ben Jonson’s most successful and highly praised comedies, Epicne: Or, The Silent Woman. Clerimont is a rowdy co-conspirator of Sir Dauphine Eugenie, a young man who is to inherit a fortune from his self-centered uncle, Morose. Morose, wishing to disinherit his nephew, marries Epicne, a young woman whose future children, he plans, will receive his estate instead of Dauphine. At the end of the play, it transpires that Epicne is actually a young man hired and trained by Dauphine for the role of wife to Morose.

The song is in two stanzas of six lines each. Like the plot of the play, it concerns appearances which can belie reality. The first stanza could be paraphrased as, “Lady, although because of cosmetics you are lovely on the surface, you may not be beautiful at all underneath.” The second stanza says, “I prefer a woman whose surface is simple and unaffected, unadorned, but who is lovely within.” One key to understanding the poem is to know that the word “still” here really means “always” and carries a concessive sense: “Still to be neat” could therefore be paraphrased. “Although you always appear neat.” “Neat,” “dressed,” “powdered,” and “perfumed” describe the cosmetic artifices employed by a woman in high society to make herself beautiful to the eyes of admiring, eligible men.

The “hid causes” of art could be either a natural, inner beauty or merely cunning strategies of self-adornment. Since the lady is always seen covered with powder, perfumed, and clothed in fancy, carefully arranged dress, it is to be presumed that she hesitates to show herself without the protecting artifice of cosmetics. Therefore, even though one has not discovered art’s “hid” cause, one may conclude that it is not natural beauty, but cunning and conceit. She is not entirely as sweet as she appears; her beauty is hollow and not “sound.”

“Give me a look, give me a face/ That makes simplicity a grace” is a sort of rationalist motto. It means that the singer prefers a woman whose face and figure (“look” may refer to how she looks overall) are pleasing in themselves. Simplicity is exactly the opposite of artifice and implies a lack of adornment. Grace is used in a double sense; it means “graceful,” but it is also a word for “virtue,” as in the cardinal virtues recommended by religion. So, just as simplicity—a sense of straightforwardness and lack of design, lack of a hidden agenda—is a moral virtue, so a simple face without makeup is graceful and lovely.

“Loosely flowing robes” are contrasted with clothes that are always (“still”) “neat.” The hair, rather than being powdered and piled up in a fashionable coiffure, should hang loose in “sweet neglect.” “Adulteries,” like most of the key terms in this song, also has two meanings: sexual dishonesty and adulteration. Literally, art or artifice in a woman’s makeup is something unnecessarily added to her natural beauty—an adulteration of her physical virtues. If “art” here refers to the fine arts in general, then to use artistic devices to hide the fundamental situation is to make an adulteress of art. Although these “adulteries” of high fashion, makeup, and dress may attract a man’s attention (“they strike mine eyes”), they do not win his heart.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Poems that express a sentiment, impression, or moment of contemplation are called lyrical, which opposes them to narrative poetry, which tells a story. This poem, however, is literally a lyric—that is, it is the words to a song....

(This entire section contains 442 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

This must be remembered in considering the form of the poem. First, one should note that the lyric is performed by a fictional character and therefore is not directly the voice of the author. Clerimont sings this piece in the midst of a play about deceptive appearances when he has special knowledge that the object of the play’s attention, Epicne, is not really a young girl at all, but a boy in disguise.

Lines which are broken in the middle by repetition alternate with lines which contain no caesura; the rhythm matches the structure of the melody. The second stanza repeats exactly the pattern of the first, with strong syntactic caesuras in lines 7, 9, and 12. In the first stanza, therefore, there is a special accent which picks up the words “neat,” “dressed,” “powdered,” and “perfumed” and matches them with “not sweet” and “not sound.” The same pattern occurs again in the second stanza: “look,” “face,” “flowing,” and “free” match with “mine eyes” and “my heart.” In the same way, “art’s hid causes” and “adulteries of art” are parallel in the song pattern. Such resonances, repetitions, and echoes are characteristic of the genre of poetry called ballad or song. They occur naturally when words are well-matched with music. Merely to think both stanzaically and melodically will produce structures this strict.

What is peculiar to Jonson in this poem is the plainness and straightforwardness of the language—the seeming lack of metaphor or simile. “Still to Be Neat,” like its theme of honesty and directness, seems to avoid the usual ornamental figures of speech and tropes that are the natural tools of poetry. Every word can be taken literally, as if this song were merely prose that happened to have a meter and rhyme. The simplicity, however, is itself a poetic effect, an artifice. Most of the key words invite a double reading—are, indeed, almost puns. For example, if the word “art” is taken to mean not “artifice” but the fine arts such as poetry, then “Still to Be Neat” could be read in a second way as a poem about the writing of poetry itself. Then the sartorial imagery becomes symbolism, not literal reference, and the word “adulteries” becomes a powerful statement about morality in aesthetics. “Eyes” become symbolic of superficial perceptions in which value and beauty are separated, whereas “heart” refers to a more authentic response, implying a more authentic poetry.