The Four Elements

A poem by Anne Bradstreet

The Fire, Air, Earth and Water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,
Who was of greatest use and might'est force;
In placide Terms they thought now to discourse,
That in due order each her turn should speak;
But enmity this amity did break
All would be chief, and all scorn'd to be under
Whence issu'd winds & rains, lightning & thunder.
The quaking earth did groan, the Sky lookt black
The Fire, the forced Air, in sunder crack;
The sea did threat the heav'ns, the heavn's the earth,
All looked like a Chaos or new birth:
Fire broyled Earth, & scorched Earth it choaked
Both by their darings, water so provoked
That roaring in it came, and with its source
Soon made the Combatants abate their force
The rumbling hissing: puffing was so great
The worlds confusion, it did seem to threat
Till gentle Air, Contention so abated
That betwixt hot and cold, she arbritrated
The others difference, being less did cease
All storms now laid, and they in perfect peace
That Fire should first begin, the rest consent,
The noblest and most active Element.


What is my worth (both ye) and all men know,
In little time I can but little show,
But what I am, let learned Grecians say,
What I can do well skil'd Mechanicks may:
The benefit all living by me finde,
All sorts of Artists here declare your mind.
What tool was ever fram'd, but by my might?
Ye Martilists, what weapons for your fight,
To try your valour by, but it must feel
My force? Your Sword, & Gun, your Lance of steel,
Your Cannon's bootless and your powder too
Without mine aid, (alas) what can they do;
The adverse walls not shak'd, the Mines not blown
And in despight the City keeps her own;
But I with one Granado or Petard,
Set ope those gates, that 'fore so strong were bar'd.
Ye Husband-men, your Coulters made by me
Your Hooes your Mattocks, & what e're you see
Subdue the Earth, and fit it for your Grain
That so it might in time requite your pain:
Though strong limb'd Vulcan forg'd it by his skill
I made it flexible unto his will;
Ye Cooks, your Kitchen implements I frame
Your Spits, Pots, Jacks, what else I need not name.
Your dayly food I wholsome make, I warm
Your shrinking Limbs, which winter's cold doth harm.
Ye Paracelsians too in vain's your skill
In Chymistry, unless I help you Still.
And you Philosophers, if e're you made
A transmutation it was through mine aid,
Ye silver Smiths, your Ure I do refine
What mingled lay with Earth I cause to shine;
But let me leave these things, my fame aspires
To match on high with the Celestial fires:
The Sun an Orb of fire was held of old,
Our Sages new another tale have told:
But be he what they will yet his aspect
A burning fiery heat we find reflect,
And of the self same nature is with mine
Cold sister Earth, no witness needs but thine;
How doth his warmth, refresh thy frozen back
And trim thee brave, in green, after thy black:
Both man and beast rejoyce at his approach,
And birds do sing, to see his glittering Coach
And though nought, but Salamanders live in fire
And fly Pyrausta call'd, all else expire,
Yet men and beast Astronomers will tell
Fixed in heavenly Constellations dwell,
My Planets of both Sexes whose degree
Poor Heathen judg'd worthy a Diety;
There's Orion arm'd attended by his dog;
The Theban stout Alcides with his Club;
The valiant Perseus, who Medusa slew,
The horse that kil'd Belerophon, then flew.
My Crab, my Scorpion, fishes you may see
The Maid with ballance, wain with horses three,
The Ram, the Bull, the Lion, and the Beagle,
The Bear, the Goat, the Raven, and the Eagle,
The Crown, the Whale, the Archer, Bernice Hare,
The Hidra, Dolphin, Boys that water bear,
Nay more, then these, Rivers 'mongst stars are found
Eridanus, where Phæton was drown'd.
Their magnitude, and height, should I recount
My story to a volume would amount;
Out of a multitude these few I touch,
Your wisdome out of little gather much.
I'le here let pass, my choler, cause of wars
and influence of divers of those stars
When in Conjunction with the Sun do more
Augment his heat, which was too hot before.
The Summer ripening season I do claim
And man from thirty unto fifty frame.
Of old when Sacrifices were Divine,
I of acceptance was the holy signe,
'Mong all thy wonders which I might recount,
There's none more strange then Ætna's Sulphry mount
The choaking flames, that from Vesuvius flew
The over curious second Pliny flew,
And with the Ashes that it sometimes shed
Apulia's 'jacent parts were covered.
And though I be a servant to each man
Yet by my force, master, my masters can.
What famous Towns, to Cinders have I turn'd?
What lasting forts my kindled wrath hath burn'd?
The stately Seats of mighty Kings by me
In confused heaps, of ashes may you see.
Wher's Ninus great wall'd Town, & Troy of old
Carthage, and hundred more in stories told
Which when they could not be o'recome by foes
The Army, through my help victorious rose
And stately London, (our great Britain's glory)
My raging flame did make a mournful story,
But maugre all, that I, or foes could do
That Phœnix from her Bed, is risen New.
Old sacred Zion, I demolish'd thee.
So great Diana's Temple was by me,
And more than bruitish Sodom, for her lust
With neighbouring Towns, I did consume to dust
What shall I say of Lightning and of Thunder
Which Kings & mighty ones amaze with wonder,
Which made a Cæsar, (Romes) the worlds proud head,
Foolish Caligula creep under 's bed.
Of Meteors, ignis fatuus and the rest,
But to leave those to th' wise, I judge it best.
The rich I oft make poor, the strong I maime,
Not sparing Life when I can take the same;
And in a word, the world I shall consume
And all therein, at that great day of Doom;
Not before then, shall cease, my raging ire,
And then because, no matter more for fire.
Now Sisters pray proceed, each in your Course
As I, impart your usefulness and force.


The next in place Earth judg'd to be her due,
Sister (quoth shee) I come not short of you,
In wealth and use I do surpass you all,
And mother earth of old men did me call:
Such is my fruitfulness, an Epithite,
Which none ere gave, or you could claim of right
Among my praises this I count not least,
I am th' original of man and beast.
To tell what sundry fruits my fat soil yields,
In Vineyards, Gardens, Orchards & Corn-fields,
Their kinds, their tasts, their colors & their smells
Would so pass time I could say nothing else:
The rich the poor, wise, fool, and every sort
Of these so common things can make report.
To tell you of my countryes and my Regions,
Soon would they pass not hundreds but legions;
My cities famous, rich and populous,
Whose numbers now are grown innumerous.
I have not time to think of every part,
Yet let me name my Grecia, 'tis my heart.
For learning arms and arts I love it well,
But chiefly 'cause the Muses there did dwell.
Ile here skip ore my mountains reaching skyes,
Whether Pyrenean, or the Alpes, both lyes
On either side the country of the Gaules
Strong forts, from Spanish and Italian brawles,
And huge great Taurus longer then the rest,
Dividing great Armenia from the least;
And Hemus, whose steep sides none foot upon,
But farewell all for dear mount Helicon,
And wondrous high Olimpus, of such fame,
That heav'n itself was oft call'd by that name.
Parnassus sweet, I dote too much on thee,
Unless thou prove a better friend to me:
But Ile leap ore these hills, not touch a dale,
Nor will I stay, no not in Tempi Vale,
Ile here let go my Lions of Numidia,
My Panthers and my Leopards of Libia,
The Behemoth and rare found Unicorn,
Poysons sure antidote lyes in his horn,
And my Hiæna (imitates mans voice)
Out of great numbers I might pick my choice,
Thousands in woods & plains, both wild & tame,
But here or there, I list now none to name;
No, though the fawning Dog did urge me sore,
In his behalf to speak a word the more,
Whose trust and valour I might here commend;
But time's too short and precious so to spend.
But hark you wealthy merchants, who for prize
Send forth your well man'd ships where sun doth rise,
After three years when men and meat is spent,
My rich Commodityes pay double rent.
Ye Galenists, my Drugs that come from thence,
Do cure your Patients, fill your purse with pence;
Besides the use of roots, of hearbs, and plants,
That with less cost near home supply your wants.
But Mariners, where got you ships and Sails,
And Oars to row, when both my Sisters fails?
Your Tackling, Anchor, compass too is mine,
Which guides when sun nor moon nor stars do shine.
Ye mighty Kings, who for your lasting fames
Built Cities, Monuments, call'd by your names,
Were those compiled heaps of massy stones
That your ambition laid, ought but my bones?
Ye greedy misers, who do dig for gold
For gemms, for silver, Treasures which I hold,
Will not my goodly face your rage suffice
But you will see what in my bowels lyes?
And ye Artificers, all Trades and forts
My bounty calls you forth to make reports,
If ought you have, to use, to wear, to eat,
But what I freely yield, upon your sweat?
And Cholerick Sister, thou for all thine ire
Well knowst my fuel must maintain thy fire.
As I ingenuously with thanks confess,
My cold thy fruitfull heat doth crave no less:
But how my cold dry temper works upon
The melancholy Constitution;
How the autumnal season I do sway,
And how I force the grey-head to obey,
I should here make a short, yet true Narration,
But that thy method is mine imitation.
Now must I shew mine adverse quality,
And how I oft work mans mortality:
He sometimes finds, maugre his toiling pain
Thistles and thorns where he expected grain.
My sap to plants and trees I must not grant,
The vine, the olive, and the figtree want:
The Corn and Hay do fall before the're mown,
And buds from fruitfull trees as soon as blown;
Then dearth prevails, that nature to suffice
The Mother on her tender infant flyes;
The husband knows no wife, nor father sons,
But to all outrages their hunger runs:
Dreadfull examples soon I might produce,
But to such Auditors 'twere of no use,
Again when Delvers dare in hope of gold
To ope those veins of Mine, audacious bold;
While they thus in mine entrails love to dive,
Before they know, they are inter'd alive.
Y'affrighted wights appal'd, how do ye shake,
When once you feel me your foundation quake?
Because in the Abbysse of my dark womb
Your cities and yourselves I oft intomb:
O dreadful Sepulcher! that this is true
Dathan and all his company well knew,
So did that Roman, far more stout then wise,
Bur'ing himself alive for honour's prize.
And since fair Italy full sadly knowes
What she hath lost by these remed'less woes.
Again what veins of poyson in me lye,
Some kill outright, and some do stupifye:
Nay into herbs and plants it sometimes creeps,
In heats & colds & gripes & drowzy sleeps;
Thus I occasion death to man and beast
When food they seek, & harm mistrust the least.
Much might I say of the hot Libian sand
Which rise like tumbling Billows on the Land
Wherein Cambyses Armie was o'rethrown
(but windy Sister, 'twas when you have blown)
I'le say no more, but this thing add I must
Remember Sons, your mould is of my dust
And after death whether interr'd or burn'd
As Earth at first so into Earth return'd.


Scarce Earth had done, but th' angry water mov'd
Sister (quoth she) it had full well behov'd
Among your boastings to have praised me
Cause of your fruitfulness as you shall see:
This your neglect shews your ingratitude
And how your subtilty, would men delude
Not one of us (all knows) that's like to thee
Ever in craving, from the other three;
But thou art bound to me, above the rest,
Who am thy drink, thy blood, thy sap and best:
If I withhold what art thou? dead dry lump
Thou bearst nor grass or plant nor tree, nor stump,
Thy extream thirst is moistned by my love
With springs below, and showres from above
Or else thy Sun burnt face and gaping chops
Complain to th' heavens if I withhold my drops
Thy Bear, thy Tiger and thy Lion stout,
When I am gone, their fierceness none needs doubt
Thy Camel hath no strength, thy Bull no force
Nor mettal's found, in the courageous Horse
Hinds leave their calves, the Elephant, the Fens
The wolves and savage beasts, forsake their Dens
The lofty Eagle, and the Stork fly low,
The Peacock and the Ostrich, share in woe,
The Pine, the Cedar, yea, and Daphne's Tree
Do cease to nourish in this misery.
Man wants his bread and wine, & pleasant fruits
He knows, such sweets, lies not in Earths dry roots
Then seeks me out, in river and in well
His deadly malady I might expell:
If I supply, his heart and veins rejoyce,
If not, soon ends his life, as did his voyce;
That this is true, Earth thou can'st not deny
I call thine Egypt, this to verifie,
Which by my fatting Nile, doth yield such store
That she can spare, when nations round are poor
When I run low, and not o'reflow her brinks
To meet with want, each woful man he thinks:
And such I am in Rivers, showrs and springs
But what's the wealth, that my rich Ocean brings
Fishes so numberless, I there do hold
If thou shouldst buy, it would exhaust thy gold:
There lives the oyly Whale, whom all men know
Such wealth but not such like, Earth thou maist show.
The Dolphin loving musick, Arians friend
The witty Barbel, whose craft doth her commend
With thousands more, which now I list not name
Thy silence of thy Beasts doth cause the same
My pearles that dangle at thy Darlings ears,
Not thou, but shel-fish yield, as Pliny clears,
Was ever gem so rich found in thy trunk,
As Egypts wanton, Cleopatra drunk?
Or hast thou any colour can come nigh
The Roman purple double Tirian dye?
Which Cæsar's Consuls, Tribunes all adorn,
For it to search my waves they thought no scorn.
Thy gallant rich perfuming Amber-greece
I lightly cast ashore as frothy fleece:
With rowling grains of purest massie gold,
Which Spains Americans do gladly hold.
Earth thou hast not moe countrys vales & mounds
Then I have fountains, rivers lakes and ponds.
My sundry seas, black, white and Adriatique,
Ionian, Baltique, and the vast Atlantique,
Ægean, Caspian, golden Rivers five,
Asphaltis lake where nought remains alive:
But I should go beyond thee in my boasts,
If I should name more seas than thou hast Coasts,
And be thy mountains n'er so high and steep,
I soon can match them with my seas as deep.
To speak of kinds of waters I neglect,
My diverse fountains and their strange effect:
My wholsome bathes, together with their cures;
My water Syrens with their guilefull lures,
Th'uncertain cause of certain ebbs and flows,
Which wondring Aristotles wit n'er knows,
Nor will I speak of waters made by art,
Which can to life restore a fainting heart.
Nor fruitfull dews, nor drops distil'd from eyes,
Which pitty move, and oft deceive the wise:
Nor yet of salt and sugar, sweet and smart,
Both when we lift to water we convert.
Alas thy ships and oars could do no good
Did they but want my Ocean and my flood.
The wary merchant on his weary beast
Transfers his goods from south to north and east,
Unless I ease his toil, and do transport
The wealthy fraight unto his wished port:
These be my benefits, which may suffice:
I now must shew what ill there in me lies.
The flegmy Constitution I uphold,
All humors, tumors which are bred of cold:
O'er childhood and ore winter I bear sway,
And Luna for my Regent I obey.
As I with showers oft times refresh the earth,
So oft in my excess I cause a dearth,
And with abundant wet so cool the ground,
By adding cold to cold no fruit proves found.
The Farmer and the Grasier do complain
Of rotten sheep, lean kine, and mildew'd grain.
And with my wasting floods and roaring torrent,
Their cattel hay and corn I sweep down current.
Nay many times my Ocean breaks his bounds,
And with astonishment the world confounds,
And swallows Countryes up, n'er seen again,
And that an island makes which once was Main:
Thus Britain fair (tis thought) was cut from France
Scicily from Italy by the like chance,
And but one land was Africa and Spain
Untill proud Gibraltar did make them twain.
Some say I swallow'd up (sure tis a notion)
A mighty country in th' Atlantique Ocean.
I need not say much of my hail and snow,
My ice and extream cold, which all men know,
Whereof the first so ominous I rain'd,
That Israels enemies therewith were brain'd;
And of my chilling snows such plenty be,
That Caucasus high mounts are seldome free,
Mine ice doth glaze Europes great rivers o're,
Till sun release, their ships can sail no more,
All know that inundations I have made,
Wherein not men, but mountains seem'd to wade;
As when Achaia all under water stood,
That for two hundred years it n'er prov'd good.
Deucalions great Deluge with many moe,
But these are trifles to the flood of Noe,
Then wholly perish'd Earths ignoble race,
And to this day impairs her beauteous face,
That after times shall never feel like woe,
Her confirm'd sons behold my colour'd bow.
Much might I say of wracks, but that Ile spare,
And now give place unto our Sister Air.


Content (quoth Air) to speak the last of you,
Yet am not ignorant first was my due:
I do suppose you'l yield without controul
I am the breath of every living soul.
Mortals, what one of you that loves not me
Abundantly more then my Sisters three?
And though you love Fire, Earth and Water well
Yet Air beyond all these you know t' excell.
I ask the man condemn'd that's neer his death,
How gladly should his gold purchase his breath,
And all the wealth that ever earth did give,
How freely should it go so he might live:
No earth, thy witching trash were all but vain,
If my pure air thy sons did not sustain,
The famish'd thirsty man that craves supply,
His moving reason is, give least I dye,
So loth he is to go though nature's spent
To bid adieu to his dear Element.
Nay what are words which do reveal the mind,
Speak who or what they will they are but wind.
Your drums your trumpets & your organs found,
What is't but forced air which doth rebound,
And such are ecchoes and report of th' gun
That tells afar th' exploit which it hath done.
Your Songs and pleasant tunes they are the same,
And so's the notes which Nightingales do frame.
Ye forging Smiths, if bellows once were gone
Your red hot work more coldly would go on.
Ye Mariners, tis I that fill your sails
And speed you to your port with wished gales.
When burning heat doth cause you faint, I cool,
And when I smile, your ocean's like a pool.
I help to ripe the corn, I turn the mill,
And with my self I every Vacuum fill.
The ruddy sweet sanguine is like to air,
And youth and spring, Sages to me compare,
My moist hot nature is so purely thin,
No place so subtily made, but I get in.
I grow more pure and pure as I mount higher,
And when I'm throughly rarifi'd turn fire:
So when I am condens'd, I turn to water,
Which may be done by holding down my vapour.
Thus I another body can assume,
And in a trice my own nature resume.
Some for this cause of late have been so bold
Me for no Element longer to hold,
Let such suspend their thoughts, and silent be,
For all Philosophers make one of me:
And what those Sages either spake or writ
Is more authentick then our modern wit.
Next of my fowles such multitudes there are,
Earths beasts and waters fish scarce can compare.
Th' Ostrich with her plumes, th' Eagle with her eyn
The Phœnix too (if any be) are mine,
The stork, the crane, the partridge, and the phesant
The Thrush, the wren, the lark a prey to th' peasant,
With thousands more which now I may omit
Without impeachment to my tale or wit.
As my fresh air preserves all things in life,
So when corrupt, mortality is rife;
Then Fevers, Purples, Pox and Pestilence,
With divers moe, work deadly consequence:
Whereof such multitudes have di'd and fled,
The living scarce had power to bury dead;
Yea so contagious countryes have we known
That birds have not 'scapt death as they have flown
Of murrain, cattle numberless did fall,
Men feared destruction epidemical.
Then of my tempests felt at sea and land,
Which neither ships nor houses could withstand,
What wofull wracks I've made may well appear,
If nought were known but that before Algere,
Where famous Charles the fifth more loss sustained
Then in his long hot war which Millain gain'd.
Again what furious storms and Hurricanoes
Know western Isles, as Christophers, Barbadoes,
Where neither houses, trees nor plants I spare,
But some fall down, and some fly up with air.
Earthquakes so hurtfull, and so fear'd of all,
Imprison'd I, am the original.
Then what prodigious sights I sometimes show,
As battles pitcht in th' air, as countryes know,
Their joyning fighting, forcing and retreat,
That earth appears in heaven, O wonder great!
Sometimes red flaming swords and blazing stars,
Portentous signs of famines, plagues and wars,
Which make the Monarchs fear their fates
By death or great mutation of their States.
I have said less than did my Sisters three,
But what's their wrath or force, the fame's in me.
To adde to all I've said was my intent,
But dare not go beyond my Element.

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