Still to be neat, still to be dressed,
As you were going to a feast;
Still be powdered, 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.
Purpose of Poem “Still to Be Neat”
It begins by describing a woman who looks too neat and orderly and who takes too much care of her appearance that the speaker suspects that she is hiding a major flaw. In other words, he has to assume that there is a reason for such overly fastidious grooming and excessive use of cosmetics and the application of perfume. Hence he is concerned that something is wrong underneath and this leads him to say in the final line of the first stanza: “All is not sweet, all is not sound”.
In the second stanza, he expresses his desire for simplicity in dress and he prefers a natural look that is more attractive in his eyes to an artificial one since it deceives the eye and sends the wrong message that a certain lady is beautiful when in reality, she may not be so. He says that ‘sweet neglect’, meaning the natural look or appearance impresses more than the artificial one where something foreign and unlike one’s true nature is added such as cosmetics and perfume. However, the addition of this foreign object does not make a woman more beautiful. On the contrary, it detracts from her beauty – if not raises doubts over her integrity and chastity. He ends up by saying that ‘th’ adulteries of art’, i.e., the addition of something foreign like cosmetics may dazzle his eyesight. However, his heart remains unaffected by this dazzling external beauty.
Message in Poem
The speaker of the poem wants women to be simple and chaste. In other words, he wants them to be just what they in reality are. Hence he thinks that their use of cosmetics is deceptive because make-up is likely to cover up or hide serious flaws or mistakes. For this reason, he wants women to appear naturally.
Note the different connotations of some words and be aware of their different meanings in various contexts:
the word ‘still’ means continually or all the time. But in another context such as in this sentence: Stand still, the word means without any movement. If I say: “I am still waiting for my friend”, still means until the present moment.
Be aware of the several possible meanings of the word ‘sweet’ and see how many times it has been repeated in the poem and guess if the intended meaning in various contexts is the same or different.
Also, see how the word ‘art’ is repeated twice and think of the implications of the word and their connection to artificial appearance.
Pay attention to the word ‘sound’. Use a dictionary to find its different meanings. Here the word begins to suggest the speaker’s moral earnestness implying his suspicion that something is deeply wrong. Also, pay attention to another strong and disapproving word “adulteries”. Now it is apparent that the soundness he has worried about involves the lady’s integrity. Hence his objection to her excessive reliance on make up is certainly moral.
Finally, be aware of the different meanings of the word ‘grace’. However, in this particular context, it means charming trait or accomplishment.