There are four acts on the stage: the first is born of Phlegm, the second is born of blood and air, the third is from fire and choler, and the fourth comes out of earth and sorrow. Childhood wears white and a garland upon his head; he is always in danger of toppling over. Youth wears beautiful attire and appears to be filled with pride; his face is flushed as he twirls about, also in danger of falling into death. Middle Age is graver, wearing a sword, and his eyes are filled with choler. He has not used the sword yet. The last act, Old Age, holds a sheaf of wheat and a glass. His hair is gray and his aspect is grave. Everyone prepares to listen to Old Age, but he says he will give precedence to Childhood, because everyone was young once. Everyone will speak about themselves, both the good and the bad.
Childhood says that he was conceived in sorrow and in sin. He does not tell much of what it cost his mother to bear him but mentions that she wastes away while he grows. He cries and disturbs his mother's slumber, making her tired as she tries to calm him. In early childhood, he frolics about, acting silly and playful. His soul is confined within his body and he gives it no heed. This innocence is beneficial, for he is free from envy, arrogance, and the concerns of wealth. He does not think about Kings or malice toward others; he does not vote or hurt others. His innocence is his “shield.” He fears no storms or drought, and he does not waste time dreaming of the future.
However, there are sins that Childhood must share. He is stained “with Adam’s sinful fact” and has a “perverse will.” As soon as he can speak, he delights in lying, and can be “stubborn, peevish, sullen, pout, and cry.” His flesh is weak and frail and his stomach might be afflicted with a disease that could take him to an early grave. He finishes his monologue and gives way to his elders.
Youth delights in his beautiful clothing and fair skin. He attends school and is privy to the best of the arts and humanities. He values the brave deeds of knights, can raise spirits with his laugh, feels that his soul is filled with music, and makes people believe in a better future with his “wit... bounty, and... courtesy.”
However, Youth can also be wild and vain. He thwarts his parents’ hopes, and his wit vanishes. Lust consumes him and he ignores laws and reason. He is prone to cheating on women and spends his nights with musicians, ruffians, and gamblers. He ignores the counsel of the wise and is overly concerned with his appearance. He plays cards and dice, but finally realizes that he is a “wretch” and has “misspent [his] time.” He may incur bodily wounds from fights or get fevers and agues after drinking. He comments that both Childhood and himself are “vanity.”
Middle Age notes that he was once a child and then a youth, but now, he is more “staid.” However, the older he gets, the more defects he sees in himself. First, though, he describes what is valuable about his position. He works hard to care for his family and his peers, spending his bounty wisely. He has performed acts of great justice, crushing the proud and freeing the oppressed. He is a soldier and a captain.
Nevertheless, for all these great and glorious things, he says, “Sometimes mine age (in all) been worse than hell.” When he was poor, he was base and avaricious. Working as farmer meant endless hours of toil, and he could only find happiness in the animals he possessed. Whether he is rich or poor, he is filled with envy and hate; his ambition makes him desire a position beyond noble status - he aspires to be royalty. He envies anyone who successfully attains the social status he desires for himself. Middle Age is thus good and bad. He is also afflicted by diseases, such as bladder stones, cholic, gout, consumption, and sciatica. He also agrees that “Man at his best estate is vanity.”
Old Age says he, of course, has also been at the other stages before. He says that neither gold, valor, nor honor can prop up his “ruin’d house,” and neither does learning or education. A few times during his life, Heaven smiled on him and brought him good fortune, but at other times he faced a great deal of adversity. Sometimes he was honorable, and sometimes he was disgraced. He saw the other countries in the world experience strife and turmoil, and witnessed the world filled with blood. Out of such trouble, though, good things can emerge.
He explains that his face is wrinkled, his memory is poor, music holds no delight for him, he cannot smell savory meat, his hands and arms are not strong anymore, and his heart is “trembling, and fearful, sad, and cold.” He is prepared to go to the place that he will never come back from. No one who lives on Earth can find comfort or consolation, no matter who they are. Old Age says he can learn things from reading the work of others but sometimes his mind gets weary. He is ready for complete rest, and when his body rots away, he says, “This body, by this soul, shall be assum’d.” His Redeemer is waiting for him, and he bids the others farewell.
"The Four Ages of Man" is one of Bradstreet's four Quaternions. It is closely related to the other three in terms of structure and themes. This poem is perhaps her most personal, though, as Bradstreet refers to incidents from her own life like childbirth and her children's sicknesses.
The poem begins with an introduction of four characters on the stage: Childhood, Youth, Middle Age, and Old Age. Bradstreet immediately identifies them with their parallel seasons, humors, and elements. She associates childhood with winter, phlegm, and water; Youth is aligned with spring, blood, and air; Middle Age is associated with summer, choler, and fire; and Old Age evokes autumn, melancholy, and earth.
Childhood begins the conversation after Old Age gives him permission to do so. As with all of the characters, he begins with a description of his birth and the vicissitudes of his early life. He details the good things about being a child, such as the innocence, the purity, the freedom from worry and arrogance, the absence of participation in public affairs and the concomitant negativity and complexity. He then launches into an account of what is difficult about childhood, such as his "perverse will," his "lying tongue," and the many dangers that can befall him. His humor of phlegm makes him privy to "vomits, worms, and flux"; this stage of life is the most difficult in terms of health.
Youth speaks next, detailing his beautiful appearance and the way he can inspire people with his "wit... bounty, and... courtesy." However, he is also affected by lust, arrogance, dissolution, and flights of fancy. He misuses his time by gambling and fighting. His time passes before he is even aware of it. In terms of health, he can be affected by wounds, agues, and fevers. His life is characterized by vanity.
Middle Age is marked by fortune and security. He can do great things for himself, his family, and other people. However, if he is poor, he can also easily be affected by baseness, envy, hate, and the desire to elevate his station. He mentions that his body can be ravaged by cholic, bladder pain, consumption, or sciatica. He is also very vain.
Old Age explains his withering condition now that he has completed all of the three other stages. His life has alternated between good and bad, featuring highs and lows. He saw many fantastic things occur, but now his body has begun to fail. His strength gives way; he is "trembling,... fearful, sad, and cold." He concludes his section by looking forward to the afterlife.
Jane Donahue Eberwein writes that in the Quaternions, Bradstreet has "the chance to experiment with varied logical and rhetorical structures...[and] closer review indicates a subtle variation in rhetorical patterns." She creates the divisions between these four phases of life, and "tensions, therefore, are rhetorically asserted but not logically resolved; yet, Bradstreet regularly acknowledges a higher level of conception where the differences simply do not matter – either because it is all vanity, as the ages conclude, or because all is unity, as Phlegm asserts."
Overall, the four ages present, as Anne Hildebrand explains, "a picture of earthly futility." Childhood and Youth express how difficult it can be for them to survive the many diseases that threaten them. All four of the ages understand that their social struggles are based on vanity, which is one of the most common themes in Bradstreet's work. Old Age understands the futility of earthly vanity, and makes it clear that only Heaven can offer redemption.