The four elements, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth, argue amongst themselves to determine which one of them is the noblest, strongest, and worthiest. They try to speak calmly at first but soon descend into warlike behavior, making everything look like “Chaos or new birth.” Finally, Air quells their rage and says that each sister should each take a turn explaining why she is the best element. Fire begins, because she is the “noblest and most active Element.”
Fire claims that her worth is readily known, because all living things benefit from her. Artists use her for their tools, weapons need her, and cities require her presence in order to be built. Vulcan’s forge used her, and so do everyday cooks. Fire warms everyone's limbs when winter chills. The philosophers speak of her transmutation and silversmiths need her to do their work. Fire is also celebrated for her kinship with the celestial world, especially the burning orb called the Sun. The Sun heats the Earth, and all beasts rejoice to see it.
Fire explains what she can do when she reveals her dangerous side. Her choler is a source of wars and her season is Summer. She bursts from Vesuvius and can turn towns into “cinder.” The seats of Kings fall into heaps of ash and great cities like London and Sodom fall. Lightning and thunder amaze but all of these things can make the rich poor and the strong weak. In one word, Fire can consume everything. Fire will only cease her roaring on Doomsday.
Earth is next, and she claims that her wealth and usability surpasses that of all her sisters. She is fruitful, and is the “original of man and beast.” Her soil yields rich crops, and her regions and countries are manifold. She fosters learning in art and arms. She proceeds to account for the great cities and civilizations she has made and the lovely hills and dales on her landscape. Merchants fill their ships with her rich commodities. Even the anchors, oars, sails, and, of course, the ships themselves, are made from the Earth. The stones used to build cities come from the Earth’s bones, and the stones dug up by “greedy misers” are but the Earth’s bowels. Earth also exhorts her sister, Fire, to remember that she needs the Earth to fuel her existence.
Earth also explains her “adverse quality,” which is that she can bring about man’s mortality. All of her hard work sometimes yields only thorns and thistles. Trees and plants die and hunger prevails, while people who venture into the deep mines are buried alive. The abysses of Earth’s womb quake and cities are entombed; as Italy well knows. There is poison in Earth's veins and some plants are deadly for men and beasts. Earth concludes by reminding her sons that “your mould is of my dust,” and all men will return to her because they are borne from the Earth.
Water begins by telling her sisters that they inadvertently praised her as they were speaking. She says they are all bound to her because she is their drink, their sap, and their blood. If she withholds herself, they will shrivel up and die. Without her, the Sun would wither away the Earth, the animals would have no strength, and men would have no sustenance. Water can cure the sick and make lands flourish, like the Nile does for Egypt. The water is home to numberless fishes and the great and necessary whales. Pearls that adorn women’s ears are fashioned in Water's bosom. Fountains, lakes, and ponds run throughout the lands. Water can match the highest mountains of Earth with her deepest seas. Those same ships that Earth mentioned could not move without Water as their foundation. Water eases Merchants’ ways as well.
Water also concedes that her Phlegmy constitution leads to trouble, like the problems that arise out of cold. Sometimes, her excess can cause problems, such as floods and torrents. She can swallow up countries and sever islands from the mainland. There is a fable about Atlantis, which was submerged into the sea and never seen again. Water's extremes are also rough, because ice and cold can hurt men and their land. The flood of Noah is the most brutal example of water's excesses and “to this day impairs [Earth's] bounteous face.”
Air is the last to speak but not the least in importance. She states frankly that she is “the breath of every living soul” and mortals love her far above her sisters. A man would give all his gold from the Earth for another breath. Air fills drums and trumpets and creates the sweet and pleasant tunes of music. Smiths and mariners depend on air, which fills the sails on a boat. She ripens corn and turns mills, and poets compare her to spring. She grows purer as she ascends higher. When she becomes rarified, she turns into fire, and when she is condensed, she turns into water. She can permeate every pore of the Earth and thus, she explains, “Thus I another body can assume, / And in a trice my own nature resume.” The philosophers say she is “One.”
Even though fresh air can preserve and nourish, it can also bring about pestilence and pox, sometimes even killing birds. Tempests destroy land and sea, and hurricanes uproot houses and trees. Air concludes that while she has said less than her sisters, “what’s their wrath or force, the fame’s in / me.” It was her intent to say all this, and she “dare not go beyond [her] Element.”
In "The Four Elements," Bradstreet creates a much more contentious relationship between the components. The elements debate, argue, and criticize each other. There is also a much clearer demarcation between the positive and negative aspects of each element, as opposed to the more pleasant depiction of each of the four seasons and the four ages of man. The elements' interaction is not as acrimonious as the discussion between the four humors, however.
Jane Donahue Eberwein is one of the foremost critics on the Quaternions. She writes that in the four poems, Bradstreet "gained intellectual benefits which were to help shape the less academic poems she composed. In writing the Quaternions, the poet refreshed her girlhood education in the Earl of Lincoln's library and systematized her knowledge." In "The Four Elements," Bradstreet discusses geography, history, astronomy, and theology; in the poems on the ages of man and humors she ably covers medicine and psychology, and in the poem about the four seasons, she is conversant in climate and agriculture. While most critics do not consider the Quaternions to be Bradstreet's best work, these poems are certainly important to her oeuvre. In these poems, Bradstreet is able to express her knowledge as well as experiment with different poetic forms.
Fire speaks first, echoing Middle Age, Summer, and Choler. She is bold, boastful, and dynamic, and recognizes her impact on weapons, war, and science. She mentions her more common uses as well, such as fueling stoves and warming people's bodies in the winter. Fire smugly explains that the Sun, a flaming ball of her essence, is noble and celestial. She is somewhat condescending towards Earth, claiming that she has to warm it. She concedes that she can also cause dangerous occurrences like volcanoes, lightning, and the incineration of towns, cities, and temples. Fire knows that she can be brutally destructive, explaining that she is not inclined to "[spare] Life when I can take the same; / And in a word, the world I shall consume / And all therein."
Earth describes men, beasts, countries, and regions. She waxes poetic about her hills and dales and the substances that yield material goods and wealth. The vessels that require water for transit and entire cities are made of Earth. Earth is not completely benevolent, however, because there are dangerous aspects of her existence, like earthquakes, cold seasons, and poison. Ominously, Earth mentions that she is the place where men are entombed after "death whether interr'd or buried."
Water is next, claiming boldly that all the other elements are bound to her because she is their "drink, .. blood, [and] sap." If she withholds herself, they will all die. The fiery sun would burn everyone if water ceased to provide nourishment. Her seas hold amazing creatures and her rivers and lakes spread throughout the land; she gives man the ability to travel far distances and also eases his existence. Of course, she also claims to have a "flegmy Constitution" and susceptive to "all humors, tumors which are bred of cold." Her floods, tsunamis, and tumultuous oceans can swallow cities, like the fabled Atlantis. And, of course, Noah's flood is notorious for sweeping away of almost all of mankind and the animal world.
Air is last, and she too makes the claim that without her, every other element is insignificant. Without the ability to breathe, man cannot live. Interestingly enough, Air also makes the claim that she is the best because she can turn into all of the other elements (like fire and water) or penetrate them (like Earth). She can cause fevers and poxes, as well as hurricanes and gales. At the end of her speech, she does not offer any conciliatory words or charming expostulations on how all the elements are united, as Winter does in "The Four Seasons" and Old Age offers in "The Four Ages of Man." However, the reader can discern that all four of these elements coexist and provide life and sustenance. They cannot be parted, and God created them to complement each other.