Bestiaries Are Out

The title of this poem seems to suggest that the animal kingdom is known. The bestiaries (the books on, of, and maybe even by animals) have totally been written and understood. Nonetheless, Auden thinks that there is still some mystery about bees, as we can find out in the last two stanzas. More on that later.

            I think this poem can be cut in three parts (be it somewhat arbitrarily since the cuts are not very straightforward, e.g. I was in doubt for a long time whether to include stanza 7 in the second or third part, or even consider it separately). In the first part, which contains the first four stanzas, Auden refers to the time before the bestiaries were out. In the second part (stanza 5 and 6) bees are compared to humans and the question is posed whether we should compare them. In the last part Auden answers this question.

            In the first part Auden refers to a (romantic) mystery that covered the lives of bees to humans. Humans admired and even envied them for their well organized hives. Bees were even seen as an example to the human society and their dedication (for lack of a better word) to their work (something we only see a reference to in the 7th stanza) was something humans could learn from (‘the Bee as Civics Teacher’). It is also for this reason that bee hives should be studied, ‘to draw some moral for our lives.’

            In stanza 5 and 6 Auden suddenly refers to the point of time where the bestiaries are out, and thus the mystery of the bees has been unraveled, ‘for now’. The ‘for now’ becomes important again in the last 2 stanzas where Auden shows not everything is actually known (yet). Stanza 5 tells us that, now that there is more known about bee hives, there is actually a large difference between humans and bees (they are ‘horridly unlike us’). But, as stanza 6 shows, some people nonetheless believe that these ‘insects’[1] should serve as an example to human society.

            Although the 6th stanza does not end with a question, the 7th starts with an answer. The question that has been left out in between here is: ‘should humans (human society) become more like bees (bee hives)?’ Auden’s answer is clear, ‘No’. Now here comes the difficulty with putting the 7th stanza with the last part: in the 7th stanza Auden refers to something which is known about bees while in the last 2 he refers to remaining questions. However since all three provide arguments for not turning humans into bees I think they belong together.

            In the 7th stanza Auden comes back again to love for ones neighbors, a topic address in many of his works, and also already discussed in class. Also the idea of labor reoccurs. Auden sees bees as working for one queen in a loveless manor, and thus believes that they can not serve as an example for a political model. In Fuller’s words: ‘the only political model they provide is mechanical and totalitarian (Fuller, 1998, p. 501).’ In the last two stanzas Auden questions bee behaviour some more by putting questions we can not (yet) answer. He wonders, for example, why bees sting if they will die afterwards.

In this last part there is also a link to Auden’s Natural Linguistics. I will not go too deep into that now, but what is interesting I think is the recognition that language is important in the human society (‘us children of the world’), and the question whether or not animals can conceive of a future. In Natural Linguistics Auden clearly states that they can not, and even though in Bestiaries Are Out he does not claim that the bees are aware that they will die when they sting, he does question why they sting.

Now, what could be Auden’s intention with this poem? I think that various interpretations could be possible. First of all, and this is rather straightforward, Auden believes we should not try to imitate bee hives since the only political system they could resemble is totalitarian. By writing in the present tense Auden shows that this idea is alive among his contemporaries (‘some believe (some even plan to do it)’ emphasis added). A second, maybe farfetched, possibility, enhanced by the recent memory of Natural Linguistic, but also invoked by the title, is that Auden wants to show that not everything is known yet. We might believe that the Bestiaries, the books on animals and animal behavior, are out, but there are still unanswered questions.  

Fuller, J. (1998). W.H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[1] Notice how Auden does not use the word ‘bee’ here, but has replaced it by ‘insect’, the exact reason for this may remain unknown, and it may not even have a real reason, but I think the term insect has an a lot more negative connotation than the bees he was so positive about at first.

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