In “Still to Be Neat” by Ben Jonson, we find numerous literally elements that tie to one theme. Jonson is determined to get his point firmly across to his audience and thus, he conveys a strong message through repetition and his wisdom. The poem sticks to a theme of not relying on superficiality when it comes to love—or liking someone. Jonson implores readers, through the use of repetition and an organized structure, to not “judge a book by its cover”. The poem’s speaker comes off as bitter, pessimistic and sarcastic. Through this strategic use of bitter tones—discovered after reading the poem several times—Ben Jonson lectures readers by telling them to open their eyes and not be fooled by first impressions. Moreover, Jonson demonstrates a comparison of the reality of the situation he was once in—and a situation he thought “was” (thought of referring to another person, perhaps a significant other) but “wasn’t”.
Though this poem seems brief in length, it is full of clues and “arrows” pointing to the direction the poet wants us to take, in order to interpret the poem’s intended meaning. What is the direction Jonson wants us to take? In Chapter 9 Vendler talks about the attitudes and perspective each person has, while the author intends one particular meaning in a poem, the poem can be interpreted in other manners—and still be accepted as long as there is evidence. From evaluating the poem, its structure and the way it is organized, one can say that the speaker is warning us about the deceit superficiality brings about. Jonson does this by making the audience question themselves; he makes his audience think. “Why cover everything up? What’s the reason behind it? Think about it!” The voice behind the poem acts like a voice of conscience to the reader, leading the reader to question and judge what “secret” lies behind all that beauty and superficiality. Again, Jonson uses repetition to instigate the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” and tie it to “looks aren’t everything”. These are common sayings we are all associated with and have heard at least once, so through using repetition, he is drilling our minds as he gives us a sermon about a sour experience he had. We can see this repetitive pattern—while not entirely parallel, we hear the same things over and over—heavily in the first stanza (lines 1-6). We see the use of “still” continuously, indicating that it still occurs today and it is non-changing. The “still” suggests that it continues today, especially when we observe the use of the present verb throughout the entire poem.
The most significant literally element in the poem is the tone used by the speaker. The tone of bitterness proposes that that persona that talks to us, the audience, has had an experience like the one he rants about. He clearly does not want to be fooled again, thus he suggests readers to learn from your mistakes, especially when it comes to love. Perhaps, there is the possibility that someone warned him about that situation beforehand (“Don’t be fooled by pretty looks!”) but he failed to listen. Consequently, he speaks with a mocking, sarcastic tone: “Lady, it is to be presumed; Though art’s hid causes are not found…” (5-6). There is a sense of “snapping” and even a reproachful tone there. Then with a slight sound of regret, the speaker states that “all is not sweet, all is not sound” (6). Certainly, there is disappointment in the speaker. He was fooled by looks, by beauty, by the lady’s pretending. He is simply attempting to warn readers by giving his story, his anecdote. The pessimism in the speaker’s voice enunciates that when everything seems too great, there has got to be “something” wrong—which may or may not be true. He injects a bit of uneasiness and plants the seed of doubt when something “seems too good to be true”, as the old saying goes. There is a bit of irony in the poem because he is saying you “cannot” fool me, yet he was definitely fooled…and now he cautions his audience to not fall in the same trap he did.
“They strike mine eyes, but not my heart” (12).