Progress? (1972) in relation to Natural Linguistics

“Sessile, unseeing,

the Plant is wholly content

with the Adjacent.

Mobilised, sighted,

The Beast can tell Here from There

And Now from Not-Yet” (Auden, 1972)

I want to point to this poem Auden’s in the context of our discussion of Natural Linguistics because I think that there are some interesting connections between both works. The issues as addressed here are very similar to Natural Linguistics: Auden questions the assumption that the ability to speak is necessarily a sign of “Progress?” meaning he questions if speaking beings are better off than plants which cannot speak. However, it only becomes clear in the last part of the poem that Auden by ‘beasts’ is referring to only humans, not to animals. This distinction is not clear instanteously because in the general sense also animals can ‘talk’ to each other.

In the first stanza Auden argues that a plant is “Sessile, unseeing” and at the same time it is content with its adjacent. In this sense Auden seems to imply that a plant does not have ‘trouble’ with its neighbours, because all of them live a life on their own: They cannot see or or move which means that they do not clash with each other,everybody has a fixed place and is content with having it (In this sense I do not think that Auden here implies with a plant’s ability to be ‘content’ in any sense of consciousness in the context of an emotional state of happiness).

In the second stanza Auden talks about a “Beast” that, in comparison to a plant, is mobilised and it can see (transferable to both animals and humans). Here it becomes obvious that for Auden a plant is the very antithesis to a beast. Now, the question emerging in this context is, if they stand in direct opposition to each other, can they have some kind of relation to each other? Or, since they have no point of intersection, do they exist in ignorance to each other? I would understand it in this way: Both, a plant and a beast exist within the same natural environment. As a plant cannot move it never bumps into a beast. However, a beast, since it is mobilised at some point bumps into a plant (be it consciously or unconsciously). Following from this, the beast necessarily is the cause of ‘trouble’ for both plants and beasts. Moreover, as the word “beast” implies, it is not only cruel in this sense, it also reagards plants to be food. As a result a beast seems to exist in a double-cruel relationship to a plant, whereas the plant is truly ‘good’ in that it does not actively disturb or destroy beasts.

Auden not only says that beasts have the ability to talk to each other, they can also distinguish “Here from There / And Now from Not-Yet”. In this connection it becomes obvious that Auden now explicitely refers to human being because animals may be able to distinguish between ‘here’ and ‘there’, but they cannot distinguish between ‘now’ and ‘not-yet’. Animals do not have an understanding of time in this sense, it is only humans that can tell about the difference of present and future. At this point the poem ends and the reader is left with the question: What does it mean if we humans have the ability to talk about the difference between present and future? And, in comparison to a plant not having this ability, are we more content than a plant? Auden here does not give an answer to this question, he merely poses a critical counter-question in the title of his poem: Is this ability supposed to be a sign of true progress?

I think that for Auden the human ability to have a sense of time is an important topic. It is addressed in a variety of other poems written by him. For instance in Now Time (1940) he critically discusses this topic. Interstingly here he understands clocks as the technical realization of our notion of time to not be able to “(…) tell our time of day” […] Because we have no time, because / We have no time until / We know what time we fill, / Why time is other than it was” (Auden, 1940, first stanza). Following from this it is obvious that for Auden clocks as mechanical realization of our notion of time are yet another abstract concept. A clock only shows us a number which is only an abstract human concept having no meaning to say, plants. Also, humans first have to learn to read clocks properly to be able to understand the actual meaning of a clock as the mechanical realization of our notion of time. Eventually this means that our human concept of time is empty, is does not refer to any truly existing aspect in the natural world; it only is invented by human beings for human beings. As a consequence – and now coming back to the question as posed by Auden in the end of Progress? – we are not better off than plants which have no sense of time. Likewise we are also not better off than animals not having the ability to distinguish between present and future, simply because it is a purely human or artifical concept that does not refer to the natural world as such and therefore animals just have no need for such a thing as time revealed by clocks.


W. H. Auden (1972). Progress?. In The complete works of W.H. Auden (1988). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

W.H. Auden (1940). No Time. In The complete works of W.H. Auden (1988). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

About this entry