A comment on progress and disunity with nature in “Bestiaries are out”

Bestiaries were books popular in the 12th century, which describe and colorfully depict the genealogy of animals mostly accompagnied with a lesson on moral values derived from the natural observations. In that sense they are manifestations of the notion of the Book of Nature. By dwelling on those medieval forms of knowing nature, Auden calls into mind the close marriage between nature and language, and nature and morals, which traditionally nurture our reflection on nature and science – seemingly a fruitful basis for critical reflections on science.

A story of progress

However, in the composition of the poem this basis is deprived of such a critical connotation. The history of humanity is linearly described along the lines of scientific progress, ordering the world in the time before and after science truely revealed nature how what it really is.

 Stanza by stanza the poem follows a implicit timeline from prehistorical times onwards (first stanza, “before we’d made a fire”) assuming that nature developed culture before humanity came up with civilization. Following the progress of knowledge stanza three and four ridicule the old idea that enquiry of bee colonies, a very common resemblance of social cooperation in nature, would be a good school for our civilization. The poet does not hesitate to criticize this as an old fashioned perspective of nature, held by (Aristotelian?) “Philosopher(s) and Christian Preacher(s)”.

In the following stanza’s we reach the time of enlightenment and accordingly it is this passage of the poem, where scientific “Research” reveals how disconnected humanity really is from nature. Here Auden’s conception of science looks rather naive, science as a relief from the lack of knowledge. It is important to note that “Bestiaries Are Out” is less critical towards science than towards more traditional concepts of nature. It seems that this balance is turned around in Auden’s work several times. In “After Reading a Childs Guide” he reintroduces unscientific and intuitive conceptions of the world, to face science as driven by the idea of knowledge for its own sake. Elsewhere I read, how Auden changed his worldview towards a more holistic perspective on culture and nature striving for the final unity of both. (I don’t know where I read it. Maybe I can tell you later …). Arguing this standpoint Enlightenment and the positivist division between researcher and nature would serve as a disruption of human history, the beginning of a decline.

In “Bestiaries Are Out”, however, this historical event is connoted as a relief. The romanticizing kind of enquiry as exemplified by bestiaries is considered old fashioned in the present time beginning with stanza five. While “research” has clearly demarcated our civilization from the bee colonies, we are just “children of the word” according to the eights stanza, rather than children of nature. Furthermore we are capable of loving our neighbors, while the bee’s only “love is labor” and their civilization, triggering our admiration, is “controlled by slaves”. If we can assume a timeline in this poem, Auden suggests the following historical path: After research has disqualified the naïve admiration of natural civilizations scientifically, also a cultural and Christian (love your neighbor!) perspective is enabled to conceive this perspective skeptically while it was so fond of it before (“Christian Preacher”, stanza four). 

The lesson learned

Unlike in other poems, which are as critical towards the human relation to nature but leave the analyst with some puzzlement, the lecture of this poem is rather obvious. The knowledge, on which Auden sheds light here and in “Natural Linguistics”, is the following: To him there is no way to follow our romantic sentiments by crawling back into nature and pretending to never have invented language and human society. “Bestiaries are out” is frankly publishing a simple truth, whereas “Natural linguistics”, which is cryptic in the title and dwells on the cryptic language of nature in its content, makes this truth as complex as possible. In the penultimate section Auden faces this naïve attitude most explicitly, which is also clear to a reader who reads the title only. It is “anthropomorphic and absurd to ask what code they (the bees as symbolizing seemingly human features in nature) satisfy when they swoop out to sting and die”.

Nevertheless, and here his witty irony comes back into play, Auden does not come up with an alternative vocabulary here. While mocking the idea of decoding the Book of Nature, he still sheds light on nature as driven by rituals, cultural concepts such as “catharsis”, and political representatives as the “Queen”. He could have given up those ideas in the last stanza by putting it differently, for instance ‘as if it was their biggest show, A duel to the death between A tooting and a quacking Queen.’ For some reason, however, he resigns this critical correctness and drops out of the line of progress. Thereby he avoids drawing a final answer from the linear history, which seemed to promise a clear-cut lesson at the end.

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