Listen to the Podcast

Transcription Tuesday V: Still to be neat

Ariana Malthaner

Almost immediately following a stanza from Lord Byron, Isabella has written a single stanza attributed to Ben Jonson.

Although hardly as well-known, Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare is considered to be one of the greatest English playwrights. This particular stanza, so loved by Isabella, is sung by the character of a page in Jonson’s play Epicœne, or The Silent Woman.

The play, a comedy, follows the misadventures of Dauphine, who conspires to marry his uncle Morose to Epicœne, a boy dressed as a woman. This poem, however, has been included in numerous English poetic anthologies and has seen much popular acclaim outside of the play – which was never particularly popular.

As it turns out, however, Jonson was what we in modern scholarship refer to as a plagiarist, being less of a creative writer and more of a creative copyist, taking information and poems from his extensive personal library. The concept of plagiarism, and indeed original creative ideas, was not nearly as rigid as it is today and thus Jonson need not be vilified for his rampant uncredited inclusion of other people’s works into his own.

This particular poem, though it has been linked to a 5th century Alexandrian epigram beginning Semper munditias, semper, Basilissa, decores, it can hardly be considered a copy and indeed, can really only be considered an inspiration at best. For further reading on the origins of the poem, Smith’s “On the source of Ben Jonson’s song ‘Still to be neat‘” and Hendrickson’s “An Epigram of Philodemus and Two Latin Congeners,” are both excellent though unfortunately not open access.

It would appear then, to be an original, transcribed in part here by Isabella.

Give me a look, give me a face

That makes simpliciti [sic] a grace

Robes loosely flowing, hair as free

Such sweet neglect more taketh me

Than all the adulteries of art,

That strike mine eye, but not my heart-

Ariana Malthaner