Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor
Poem Of The Week: Simplex Munditiis By Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
STILL to be neat, still to be drest,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powder'd, still perfumed:
Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art's hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.
Give me a look, give me a face
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all th' adulteries of art;
They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.
Ben Jonson (c. 1617), by Abraham Blyenberch; oil on canvas painting at the National Portrait Gallery, London
The artfulness of Elizabethan poet and playwright Ben Jonson’s pithy sestets in Simplex Munditiis
is deliciously ironic: choosing to couch an homage to careless beauty in fixed metrical measures, Jonson is harnessing poetic form in order to describe the aesthetic attraction of unpracticed form-lessness
Taken from an Horatian ode, the Latin expression Simplex Munditiis
has no direct correlation in English, but is given to mean something like ‘elegance in simplicity’. The poet’s studied gaze strips away the prospective equipage of eye-catching powders and perfumes to reveal the youthful naturalness whose grace is somehow consonant with the gorgeous, free-flowing confidence of his rhyming couplets.
All roads, in this declaration of disinterested love, lead from the heart, and if Jonson is not the first or last poet to be smitten by the power of ‘sweet’, unselfconscious ‘neglect’ – his near contemporary Robert Herrick contrived a similar paean to ingenuous beauty in Delight in Disorder
- then his poem must be amongst the most subtly persuasive on the theme.
‘Simplex Munditiis’ is taken from The New Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1950 and is published by the Oxford University Press.