Address to the Beasts and Auden’s notion of ‘success’

In my last discussion of Auden’s Our Bias (1939) I had problems to define Auden’s understanding of ‘success’. As such I argued that Auden here evoked a picture of the human concept of time as having no visible influence on the flora and the animal kingdom. In this sense, roses and lions do not seem to care about it; instead they care for ‘success’. Auden did not elaborate on the character of this ‘success’ and therefore I followed that he understands our human bias to be ‘not going straight’ in order to achieve some kind success (solving problems) but to rather ‘go round’ things. As such Auden invited his readers to learn a lesson from the natural environment.

Now starting from this situation, I think that in Address to the Beasts Auden provides a clearer idea of what he understands this kind of success to be. Auden here discusses, similar as he does in Our Bias, our human existence in comparison to that of Beasts and therefore I argue that I here can derive inter-textual conclusions as emerging between these two poems.

However, in order to make my line of reasoning understandable I will first of all briefly sketch the content of Address to the Beasts as I understood it:

1st stanza

From the moment we human beings are ‘worlded’ (born and educated) at the same time we are confused (see in After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physis where Auden says that we do not know for what ends we acquire knowledge.

2nd stanza

We do not know what we are doing and as a rule we do not want to know.

3rd stanza

Here Auden begins to draw a connection between humans and Beasts: our knowledge that you are around is alone a source of happiness.

4th stanza

This holds true even though you are actually not interested in us. Only when we disturb you, you ‘look’ at us.

5th stanza

Scents/Smells are most valuable for you except our artificial one.

6th stanza

You always live according to (execute) ‘Nature’s policies’.

7th stanza

Only if you are unlucky (Nussbaum=no influence anymore, no longer have power of decision) you behave not according to Nature’s rules -does Auden here refer to the destructive human influence on the natural environment?

8th stanza

You have ‘good manners’ by birth, you are not snobbish, no blasphemy.

9th stanza

You do not sneak about others.

10th stanza

Your home is nice and cosy, not a pompous artifice construct.

11th stanza

Certainly, you kill others of your kind to survive but you do not kill for ‘applause’ (advertence).

12th stanza

Even in comparison to your most avaricious beings, still we humans are to be valued as being non-U (lower class vocabulary).

Definition: “U and non-U English usage, with U standing for upper class, and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes, were part of the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects (sociolects) in 1950s Britain and New England. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the working classes, which in many instances used the same words as the upper class. The debate was set in motion in 1954 by the British linguist Alan S C Ross (Professor of Linguistics in the University of Birmingham). He coined the terms U and non-U in an article on the difference that social class makes to English language usage, which was published in a Finnish professional linguistics journal.His article covered differences of pronunciation and writing style, but it was his attention to differences of vocabulary that received the most attention” (Wikipedia)

13th stanza

You do not feel the need to become educated like us because you are not living according to an artificial system (=tax system) .

14th stanza

But you inspired us, poets write down your oral cultures .

15th stanza

Even though you are ‘unconscious of God’ (=hence Auden thinks God as we picture him definitely exists) your ‘Sung Eucharists’ (Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper) are more holy than ours.

16th stanza

We say you are ruled by your instincts (=you have no conscious behaviour), but in fact I believe that it rather is common sense (= you actually are able to decide about your behaviour).

17th stanza

Even though you cannot bring into existence a genius like Mozart (beautiful music) you also cannot…

18th stanza

…bother the world with silly personalities like Hegel or Hobbes.

Hegel: “(…) belongs to the period of “German idealism” in the decades following Kant. The most systematic of the post-Kantian idealists, Hegel attempted, throughout his published writings as well as in his lectures, to elaborate a comprehensive and systematic ontology from a “logical” starting point. He is perhaps most well-known for his teleological account of history, an account which was later taken over by Marx and “inverted” into a materialist theory of an historical development culminating in communism” (Redding, 2006, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel)

-Hobbes: “(…) whose current reputation rests largely on his political philosophy, was a thinker with wide-ranging interests. In philosophy, he defended a range of materialist, nominalist, and empiricist views against Cartesian and Aristotelian alternatives (…) Hobbes is a sort of empiricist, in that he thinks all of our ideas are derived, directly or indirectly, from sensation.[2] In addition he tells a causal story about perception, which is largely the story of a causal chain of motions. The object causes (immediately or mediately) pressure on the sense organ, which causes motion inside us, all the way to the “brain and heart”. And there this motion causes “a resistance, or counter-pressure, or endeavour of the heart to deliver itself; which endeavour, because outward, seemeth to be some matter without. And this seeming, or fancy, is that which men call sense” (Hobbes 1651, 1.4)” (Duncan, 2009, Thomas Hobbes)

19th stanza

It is unlikely that we ever become adults (by example) – We are childish compared to youl.

20th stanza

Maybe one day we become not fossils (=lasting objects/existence) but vapour (=evaporated existence) – our human influence on the natural environment is no longer of lasting importance. For Auden this would be a ‘balmy day’ (=good thing).

21st stanza

Even though we are now very distinct from you, in death we both are nothing but corpses.

22nd stanza

Even though we sentence (dominate) you, you seem to simply not care about that.

23rd stanza

Is this because you know that we ‘upstarts’ (nouveau riche – you actually exist for a longer period of time but we are more proud/arrogant) are especially jealous of your innocence (=good by nature as you live according to Nature’s policies)? – you know that we never can become this so you do not worry/care about our being?

-only if we were envious towards you this would be a source of danger for you because “Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. It is a universal and most unfortunate aspect of human nature because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Although envy is generally seen as something negative, Russell also believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement towards democracy and must be endured in order to achieve a more just social system.” (Wikipedia)

Now, after having laid down the content of Address to the Beasts, I want to come back to my initial point: Auden provides in this poem a clearer picture of what he understands as ‘success’.

As I argued in my analysis of Our Bias Auden understands our human bias to be not to go straight but to rather ‘go round’ things. This notion can also be found in Address to the Beasts; for instance in stanza one and two Auden emphasizes that in being ‘worlded’, being educated in order to fit into the existing kind of society we humans need to acquire knowledge. However, actually we do not know for which ends we acquire this knowledge which means we ‘go round things’. In comparison, beasts ‘go straight’ in that they follow Nature’s rules (stanza six), they rely on their senses (smell) but we human beings create artificial ones (stanza five). Similarly in stanza thirteen Auden says that we humans ‘go round things’ in that we live according to an artificial system in which we first need to be educated in order to be able to live according to its rules; but beats live according to the natural system, therefore they do not need such as thing as our human construct of education.

Fom these differentiations between humans and beasts it follows that Auden understands beasts’ existence to be more successful as compared to human existence in that beasts do not need to ‘collect’ knowledge that actually has no direct relevance in living a successful life according to Nature’s policies. Auden argues that this kind of life must be more successful because we human beings are inspired by it whereas beats are not interested in our existence at all (stanza fourteen). Also the life of beasts is more successful in that they do not know ‘bad manners’ such as blasphemy (stanza eight) or sneaking about others (stanza nine), and they just have a cosy home instead of an artificial construct (stanza ten). Moreover, beasts only kill each other in order to survive whereas humans kill for advertence or ‘applause’ (stanza eleven).

Deriving from these findings I argue that Auden in Address to the Beasts gives a clearer idea of what he means by the term ‘success’ as posed in Our Bias. This notion of success seems to be very closely linked to the notion of the ‘good life’ of beasts. This rather is in accordance to nature and in that sense we as human beings could learn a lesson from them.


Duncan, S. (2009). Thomas Hobbes. Stanford Ecnyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 8th, 2010 from

Redding, R. (2006). Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Stanford Ecnyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 8th, 2010 from

W. H. Auden (1939). Our Bias. In The complete works of W.H. Auden. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

W. H. Auden. Address to the Beasts

W. H. Auden. After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics.



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