The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

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 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...

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