Buzz Off: Gay, Mandeville, Eutopia
A note by Laura Steele
It was John Lyly who came up with the phrase "busie as a bee" in Euphues and his England (1580); bees literary and actual swarmed through the seventeenth century, associated with commonwealth, exploration, lips so red they are bee-stung, and, economically, a series of bee-keeping inventions (new bee-boxes etc) which gave the idea of a hive as a generator of national wealth an actual and growing basis. To take one poem from the century's middle, John Cleveland's 'FUSCURA, or the Bee Errant' (1657): the errant bee mistakes the lover's object as a range of innuendo-scented flowers, supping from her hand and moving on, presumably the poem's couplets being the cellular confectionery produc'd, while Cleveland also associates the adventurous bee with Columbus, the female body as the globe, a figure found throughout this period, most memorably in The Comedy of Errors (early 1590s) - "Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?" - "Oh, sir, I did not look so low."
By the early eighteenth century, it seems that all these bee associations were so bowzily busy that neither Mandeville (in his 'THE Grumbling Hive: OR, KNAVES Turn'd HONEST' (1705, published with 'Fable of the Bees' essay, 1714) or John Gay in his response, 'The Degenerate Bees' (Fable X of the second series of Fables, published posthumously 1733), use bees in any metaphorical detail at all. The Mandeville poem is remarkable for a lack of them. He simply assures us that
These Insects lived like Men, and all
Our Actions they perform'd in small:
Do we not owe the Growth of Wine
To the dry, crooked, shabby Vine?
Which, whist its shutes neglected stood,
Choak'd other Plants, and ran to Wood;
But blest us with his Noble Fruit;
As soon as it was tied, and cut:
So Vice is beneficial found,
When it's by Justice lopt and bound
A Golden Age, must be as free,
For Acorns, as for Honesty.
Mandeville is quoted with particular approval within broadly social democratic tendencies - economists (Keynes in particular, marshalled against saving in General Theory), politicians and public policy people - because, firstly, he articulates a rejection of earnest, good-hearted but wrong-headed strivings for "eutopia" and moral purity (though the bit about "wild democracy" isn't so popular) which the pragmatism of office also rejects: we cannot, the necessary saw goes, remake the hive's structure by will, that is "a vain / Eutopia seated in the Brain." (Eutopia because with force it can be created; opponents of the EU have not been slow to pick up on this line, however). Change and pressure occur anyway; regulation is ours to do.
Writers such as John Gay and, the exemplary figure I choose here, Rousseau, reacted against the substance of Mandevillian perspective, Rousseau seeking to historicize the hive (locating it as urban), and John Gay (in 'The Degenerate Bees') praising Swift thus:
A stubborn bee, among the swarm,
With honest indignation warm,
Thus from his cell with zeal replied:
'I slight thy frowns, and hate thy pride.
He spoke; and from his cell dismissed,
Was insolently scoffed and hissed.
With him a friend or two resigned,
Disdaining the degenerate kind.
Gay gives us another bee moment which recalls the sexual innuendo side of things. We know there's going to be a bee in The Beggar's Opera because the Beggar says so in his prologue: "I have introduced the Similes that are in all your celebrated Operas: The Swallow, the Moth, the Bee, the Ship, the Flower, etc." The bee arrives when Macheath and Polly are reassuring each other that they have been faithful. Macheath sings:
My Heart was so free,
It rov'd like the Bee,
'Till Polly my Passion requited;
I sipt each Flower,
I chang'd ev'ry Hour,
But here ev'ry Flower's united.