The Four Ages of Man

Original Text: 
The Tenth Muse Lately sprung up in America. By a Gentlewoman in those parts (London: Stephen Bowtell, 1650): 41-55. See Anne Bradstreet, The Tenth Muse (1650).
     Middle Age
     Old Age
1.1Lo now! four other acts upon the stage,
1.2Childhood, and Youth, the Manly, and Old-age.
1.4Unstable, supple, moist, and cold's his Nature.
1.5The second: frolic claims his pedigree;
1.6From blood and air, for hot and moist is he.
1.7The third of fire and choler is compos'd,
1.8Vindicative, and quarrelsome dispos'd.
1.9The last, of earth and heavy melancholy,
1.10Solid, hating all lightness, and all folly.
1.11Childhood was cloth'd in white, and given to show,
1.12His spring was intermixed with some snow.
1.13Upon his head a Garland Nature set:
1.14Of Daisy, Primrose, and the Violet.
1.15Such cold mean flowers (as these) blossom betime,
1.16Before the Sun hath throughly warm'd the clime.
1.18And in his hand an hour-glass new begun,
1.19In dangers every moment of a fall,
1.20And when 'tis broke, then ends his life and all.
1.21But if he held till it have run its last,
1.22Then may he live till threescore years or past.
1.23Next, youth came up in gorgeous attire
1.24(As that fond age, doth most of all desire),
1.25His Suit of Crimson, and his Scarf of Green.
1.26In's countenance, his pride quickly was seen.
1.28Seemed to grow on's head (bedew'd with showers).
1.30When blushing first, she 'gins to red the Air.
1.31No wooden horse, but one of metal try'd:
1.32He seems to fly, or swim, and not to ride.
1.33Then prancing on the Stage, about he wheels;
1.34But as he went, death waited at his heels.
1.35The next came up, in a more graver sort,
1.36As one that cared for a good report.
1.37His Sword by's side, and choler in his eyes,
1.38But neither us'd (as yet) for he was wise,
1.39Of Autumn fruits a basket on his arm,
1.40His golden rod in's purse, which was his charm.
1.41And last of all, to act upon this Stage,
1.42Leaning upon his staff, comes up old age.
1.43Under his arm a Sheaf of wheat he bore,
1.44A Harvest of the best: what needs he more?
1.45In's other hand a glass, ev'n almost run,
1.46This writ about: This out, then I am done.
1.47His hoary hairs and grave aspect made way,
1.48And all gave ear to what he had to say.
1.49These being met, each in his equipage
1.50Intend to speak, according to their age,
1.51But wise Old-age did with all gravity
1.52To childish childhood give precedency,
1.53And to the rest, his reason mildly told:
1.54That he was young, before he grew so old.
1.55To do as he, the rest full soon assents,
1.56Their method was that of the Elements,
1.57That each should tell what of himself he knew,
1.58Both good and bad, but yet no more then's true.
1.59With heed now stood, three ages of frail man,
1.60To hear the child, who crying, thus began.
2.1Ah me! conceiv'd in sin, and born in sorrow,
2.2A nothing, here to day, but gone to morrow,
2.3Whose mean beginning, blushing can't reveal,
2.4But night and darkness must with shame conceal.
2.5My mother's breeding sickness, I will spare,
2.6Her nine months' weary burden not declare.
2.7To shew her bearing pangs, I should do wrong,
2.8To tell that pain, which can't be told by tongue.
2.9With tears into this world I did arrive;
2.10My mother still did waste, as I did thrive,
2.11Who yet with love and all alacity,
2.12Spending was willing to be spent for me.
2.13With wayward cries, I did disturb her rest,
2.14Who sought still to appease me with her breast;
2.15With weary arms, she danc'd, and By, By, sung,
2.16When wretched I (ungrate) had done the wrong.
2.17When Infancy was past, my Childishness
2.18Did act all folly that it could express.
2.19My silliness did only take delight,
2.20In that which riper age did scorn and slight,
2.22My then ambitious thoughts were low enough.
2.23My high-born soul so straitly was confin'd
2.24That its own worth it did not know nor mind.
2.25This little house of flesh did spacious count,
2.26Through ignorance, all troubles did surmount,
2.27Yet this advantage had mine ignorance,
2.28Freedom from Envy and from Arrogance.
2.29How to be rich, or great, I did not cark,
2.30A Baron or a Duke ne'r made my mark,
2.31Nor studious was, Kings favours how to buy,
2.32With costly presents, or base flattery;
2.33No office coveted, wherein I might
2.34Make strong my self and turn aside weak right.
2.35No malice bare to this or that great Peer,
2.36Nor unto buzzing whisperers gave ear.
2.37I gave no hand, nor vote, for death, of life.
2.38I'd nought to do, 'twixt Prince, and peoples' strife.
2.39No Statist I: nor Marti'list i' th' field.
2.40Where e're I went, mine innocence was shield.
2.41My quarrels, not for Diadems, did rise,
2.42But for an Apple, Plumb, or some such prize.
2.43My strokes did cause no death, nor wounds, nor scars.
2.44My little wrath did cease soon as my wars.
2.45My duel was no challenge, nor did seek.
2.46My foe should weltering, with his bowels reek.
2.47I had no Suits at law, neighbours to vex,
2.48Nor evidence for land did me perplex.
2.49I fear'd no storms, nor all the winds that blows.
2.50I had no ships at Sea, no fraughts to loose.
2.51I fear'd no drought, nor wet; I had no crop,
2.52Nor yet on future things did place my hope.
2.53This was mine innocence, but oh the seeds
2.54Lay raked up of all the cursed weeds,
2.55Which sprouted forth in my insuing age,
2.56As he can tell, that next comes on the stage.
2.57But yet me let me relate, before I go,
2.58The sins and dangers I am subject to:
2.60From thence I 'gan to sin, as soon as act;
2.61A perverse will, a love to what's forbid;
2.62A serpent's sting in pleasing face lay hid;
2.63A lying tongue as soon as it could speak
2.65Oft stubborn, peevish, sullen, pout, and cry;
2.66Then nought can please, and yet I know not why.
2.67As many was my sins, so dangers too,
2.68For sin brings sorrow, sickness, death, and woe,
2.69And though I miss the tossings of the mind,
2.70Yet griefs in my frail flesh I still do find.
2.71What gripes of wind, mine infancy did pain?
2.72What tortures I, in breeding teeth sustain?
2.74Whence vomits, worms, and flux have issued?
2.75What breaches, knocks, and falls I daily have?
2.76And some perhaps, I carry to my grave.
2.77Sometimes in fire, sometimes in water fall:
2.78Strangely preserv'd, yet mind it not at all.
2.79At home, abroad, my danger's manifold
2.80That wonder 'tis, my glass till now doth hold.
2.81I've done: unto my elders I give way,
2.82For 'tis but little that a child can say.
3.1My goodly clothing and beauteous skin
3.2Declare some greater riches are within,
3.3But what is best I'll first present to view,
3.4And then the worst, in a more ugly hue,
3.5For thus to do we on this Stage assemble,
3.6Then let not him, which hath most craft dissemble.
3.7Mine education, and my learning's such,
3.8As might my self, and others, profit much:
3.9With nurture trained up in virtue's Schools;
3.10Of Science, Arts, and Tongues, I know the rules;
3.11The manners of the Court, I likewise know,
3.12Nor ignorant what they in Country do.
3.13The brave attempts of valiant Knights I prize
3.14That dare climb Battlements, rear'd to the skies.
3.15The snorting Horse, the Trumpet, Drum I like,
3.16The glist'ring Sword, and well advanced Pike.
3.17I cannot lie in trench before a Town,
3.18Nor wait til good advice our hopes do crown.
3.19I scorn the heavy Corslet, Musket-proof;
3.20I fly to catch the Bullet that's aloof.
3.21Though thus in field, at home, to all most kind,
3.22So affable that I do suit each mind,
3.23I can insinuate into the breast
3.24And by my mirth can raise the heart deprest.
3.25Sweet Music rapteth my harmonious Soul,
3.26And elevates my thoughts above the Pole.
3.27My wit, my bounty, and my courtesy
3.28Makes all to place their future hopes on me.
3.29This is my best, but youth (is known) alas,
3.30To be as wild as is the snuffing Ass,
3.31As vain as froth, as vanity can be,
3.32That who would see vain man may look on me:
3.33My gifts abus'd, my education lost,
3.34My woful Parents' longing hopes all crost;
3.35My wit evaporates in merriment;
3.36My valour in some beastly quarrel's spent;
3.37Martial deeds I love not, 'cause they're virtuous,
3.38But doing so, might seem magnanimous.
3.39My Lust doth hurry me to all that's ill,
3.40I know no Law, nor reason, but my will;
3.41Sometimes lay wait to take a wealthy purse
3.42Or stab the man in's own defence, that's worse.
3.43Sometimes I cheat (unkind) a female Heir
3.44Of all at once, who not so wise, as fair,
3.46Until her friends, treasure, and honour's gone.
3.47Sometimes I sit carousing others' health
3.48Until mine own be gone, my wit, and wealth.
3.49From pipe to pot, from pot to words and blows,
3.50For he that loveth Wine wanteth no woes.
3.51Days, nights, with Ruffins, Roarers, Fiddlers spend,
3.52To all obscenity my ears I bend,
3.53All counsel hate which tends to make me wise,
3.54And dearest friends count for mine enemies.
3.55If any care I take, 'tis to be fine,
3.56For sure my suit more than my virtues shine.
3.57If any time from company I spare,
3.58'Tis spent in curling, frisling up my hair,
3.61Cards, Dice, and Oaths, concomitant, I love;
3.62To Masques, to Plays, to Taverns still I move;
3.63And in a word, if what I am you'd hear,
3.64Seek out a British, bruitish Cavalier.
3.65Such wretch, such monster am I; but yet more
3.66I want a heart all this for to deplore.
3.67Thus, thus alas! I have mispent my time,
3.68My youth, my best, my strength, my bud, and prime,
3.69Remembring not the dreadful day of Doom,
3.70Nor yet the heavy reckoning for to come,
3.71Though dangers do attend me every hour
3.72And ghastly death oft threats me with her power:
3.73Sometimes by wounds in idle combats taken,
3.74Sometimes by Agues all my body shaken;
3.75Sometimes by Fevers, all my moisture drinking,
3.76My heart lies frying, and my eyes are sinking.
3.78With sad affrights of death, do menace me.
3.79Sometimes the loathsome Pox my face be-mars
3.80With ugly marks of his eternal scars.
3.81Sometimes the Frenzy strangely mads my Brain
3.83Too many's my Diseases to recite,
3.84That wonder 'tis I yet behold the light,
3.85That yet my bed in darkness is not made,
3.86And I in black oblivion's den long laid.
3.87Of Marrow full my bones, of Milk my breasts,
3.88Ceas'd by the gripes of Serjeant Death's Arrests:
3.89Thus I have said, and what I've said you see,
3.90Childhood and youth is vain, yea vanity.
4.1Childhood and youth forgot, sometimes I've seen,
4.2And now am grown more staid that have been green,
4.3What they have done, the same was done by me:
4.4As was their praise, or shame, so mine must be.
4.5Now age is more, more good ye do expect;
4.6But more my age, the more is my defect.
4.7But what's of worth, your eyes shall first behold,
4.8And then a world of dross among my gold.
4.9When my Wild Oats were sown, and ripe, and mown,
4.10I then receiv'd a harvest of mine own.
4.11My reason, then bad judge, how little hope
4.12Such empty seed should yield a better crop.
4.13I then with both hands graspt the world together,
4.14Thus out of one extreme into another,
4.15But yet laid hold on virtue seemingly:
4.16Who climbs without hold, climbs dangerously.
4.17Be my condition mean, I then take pains
4.18My family to keep, but not for gains.
4.19If rich, I'm urged then to gather more
4.20To bear me out i' th' world and feed the poor;
4.21If a father, then for children must provide,
4.22But if none, then for kindred near ally'd;
4.23If Noble, then mine honour to maintain;
4.24If not, yet wealth, Nobility can gain.
4.25For time, for place, likewise for each relation,
4.26I wanted not my ready allegation.
4.27Yet all my powers for self-ends are not spent,
4.28For hundreds bless me for my bounty sent,
4.29Whose loins I've cloth'd, and bellies I have fed,
4.30With mine own fleece, and with my household bread.
4.31Yea, justice I have done, was I in place,
4.32To cheer the good and wicked to deface.
4.33The proud I crush'd, th'oppressed I set free,
4.34The liars curb'd but nourisht verity.
4.35Was I a pastor, I my flock did feed
4.36And gently lead the lambs, as they had need.
4.37A Captain I, with skill I train'd my band
4.38And shew'd them how in face of foes to stand.
4.39If a Soldier, with speed I did obey
4.40As readily as could my Leader say.
4.41Was I a laborer, I wrought all day
4.42As cheerfully as ere I took my pay.
4.43Thus hath mine age (in all) sometimes done well;
4.44Sometimes mine age (in all) been worse than hell.
4.45In meanness, greatness, riches, poverty
4.46Did toil, did broil; oppress'd, did steal and lie.
4.47Was I as poor as poverty could be,
4.48Then baseness was companion unto me.
4.49Such scum as Hedges and High-ways do yield,
4.50As neither sow, nor reap, nor plant, nor build.
4.51If to Agriculture I was ordain'd,
4.52Great labours, sorrows, crosses I sustain'd.
4.53The early Cock did summon, but in vain,
4.54My wakeful thoughts up to my painful gain.
4.55For restless day and night, I'm robb'd of sleep
4.56By cankered care, who sentinel doth keep.
4.57My weary breast rest from his toil can find,
4.58But if I rest, the more distrest my mind.
4.59If happiness my sordidness hath found,
4.60'Twas in the crop of my manured ground:
4.62My fleeced Ewe, and ever farrowing Sow.
4.63To greater things I never did aspire,
4.64My dunghill thoughts or hopes could reach no higher.
4.65If to be rich, or great, it was my fate.
4.66How was I broil'd with envy, and with hate?
4.67Greater than was the great'st was my desire,
4.68And greater still, did set my heart on fire.
4.69If honour was the point to which I steer'd,
4.70To run my hull upon disgrace I fear'd,
4.71But by ambitious sails I was so carried
4.72That over flats, and sands, and rocks I hurried,
4.73Opprest, and sunk, and sack'd, all in my way
4.74That did oppose me to my longed bay.
4.75My thirst was higher than Nobility
4.76And oft long'd sore to taste on Royalty,
4.77Whence poison, Pistols, and dread instruments
4.78Have been curst furtherers of mine intents.
4.79Nor Brothers, Nephews, Sons, nor Sires I've spar'd.
4.80When to a Monarchy my way they barr'd,
4.81There set, I rid my self straight out of hand
4.82Of such as might my son, or his withstand,
4.83Then heapt up gold and riches as the clay,
4.84Which others scatter like the dew in May.
4.85Sometimes vain-glory is the only bait
4.86Whereby my empty school is lur'd and caught.
4.87Be I of worth, of learning, or of parts,
4.88I judge I should have room in all men's hearts;
4.89And envy gnaws if any do surmount.
4.90I hate for to be had in small account.
4.92I glory in my wealth I have within.
4.93Thus good, and bad, and what I am, you see,
4.94Now in a word, what my diseases be:
4.96Torments me with intolerable pains;
4.97The windy cholic oft my bowels rend,
4.98To break the darksome prison, where it's penn'd;
4.99The knotty Gout doth sadly torture me,
4.100And the restraining lame Sciatica;
4.102And the Consumption to the bones doth waste me,
4.103Subject to all Diseases, that's the truth,
4.104Though some more incident to age, or youth;
4.105And to conclude, I may not tedious be,
4.106Man at his best estate is vanity.
5.1What you have been, ev'n such have I before,
5.2And all you say, say I, and something more.
5.3Babe's innocence, Youth's wildness I have seen,
5.4And in perplexed Middle-age have been,
5.5Sickness, dangers, and anxieties have past,
5.6And on this Stage am come to act my last.
5.7I have been young, and strong, and wise as you
5.9In every Age I've found much vanity.
5.10An end of all perfection now I see.
5.11It's not my valour, honour, nor my gold,
5.12My ruin'd house, now falling can uphold;
5.13It's not my Learning, Rhetoric, wit so large,
5.14Now hath the power, Death's Warfare, to discharge.
5.15It's not my goodly house, nor bed of down,
5.16That can refresh, or ease, if Conscience frown;
5.17Nor from alliance now can I have hope,
5.18But what I have done well, that is my prop.
5.19He that in youth is godly, wise, and sage
5.20Provides a staff for to support his age.
5.21Great mutations, some joyful, and some sad,
5.22In this short Pilgrimage I oft have had.
5.23Sometimes the Heavens with plenty smil'd on me,
5.24Sometimes, again, rain'd all adversity;
5.25Sometimes in honour, sometimes in disgrace,
5.26Sometime an abject, then again in place:
5.27Such private changes oft mine eyes have seen.
5.28In various times of state I've also been.
5.29I've seen a Kingdom flourish like a tree
5.31And like a Cedar others so surmount
5.32That but for shrubs they did themselves account.
5.35I saw all peace at home, terror to foes,
5.36But ah, I saw at last those eyes to close,
5.37And then, me thought, the world at noon grew dark
5.38When it had lost that radiant Sun-like spark.
5.39In midst of griefs, I saw some hopes revive
5.40(For 'twas our hopes then kept our hearts alive);
5.41I saw hopes dash't, our forwardness was shent,
5.42And silenc'd we, by Act of Parliament.
5.43I've seen from Rome, an execrable thing,
5.47I've seen a Prince to live on others' lands,
5.48A Royal one, by alms from Subjects' hands.
5.49I've seen base men, advanc'd to great degree,
5.50And worthy ones, put to extremity,
5.51But not their Prince's love, nor state so high,
5.52Could once reverse, their shameful destiny.
5.54And others fly their Country through their dread.
5.55I've seen, and so have ye, for 'tis but late,
5.56The desolation of a goodly State.
5.57Plotted and acted so that none can tell
5.58Who gave the counsell, but the Prince of hell.
5.59I've seen a land unmoulded with great pain,
5.60But yet may live to see't made up again.
5.61I've seen it shaken, rent, and soak'd in blood,
5.62But out of troubles ye may see much good.
5.63These are no old wives' tales, but this is truth.
5.64We old men love to tell, what's done in youth.
5.65But I return from whence I stept awry;
5.66My memory is short and brain is dry.
5.67My Almond-tree (gray hairs) doth flourish now,
5.68And back, once straight, begins apace to bow.
5.69My grinders now are few, my sight doth fail,
5.70My skin is wrinkled, and my cheeks are pale.
5.71No more rejoice, at music's pleasant noise,
5.72But do awake at the cock's clanging voice.
5.73I cannot scent savours of pleasant meat,
5.74Nor sapors find in what I drink or eat.
5.75My hands and arms, once strong, have lost their might.
5.76I cannot labour, nor I cannot fight:
5.77My comely legs, as nimble as the Roe,
5.78Now stiff and numb, can hardly creep or go.
5.79My heart sometimes as fierce, as Lion bold,
5.80Now trembling, and fearful, sad, and cold.
5.82Shall both be broke, by wracking death so strong.
5.83I then shall go whence I shall come no more.
5.84Sons, Nephews, leave, my death for to deplore.
5.85In pleasures, and in labours, I have found
5.86That earth can give no consolation sound
5.87To great, to rich, to poor, to young, or old,
5.88To mean, to noble, fearful, or to bold.
5.89From King to beggar, all degrees shall find
5.90But vanity, vexation of the mind.
5.91Yea, knowing much, the pleasant'st life of all
5.92Hath yet amongst that sweet, some bitter gall.
5.93Though reading others' Works doth much refresh,
5.94Yet studying much brings weariness to th' flesh.
5.95My studies, labours, readings all are done,
5.96And my last period can e'en elmost run.
5.97Corruption, my Father, I do call,
5.98Mother, and sisters both; the worms that crawl
5.99In my dark house, such kindred I have store.
5.100There I shall rest till heavens shall be no more;
5.101And when this flesh shall rot and be consum'd,
5.102This body, by this soul, shall be assum'd;
5.103And I shall see with these same very eyes
5.104My strong Redeemer coming in the skies.
5.105Triumph I shall, o're Sin, o're Death, o're Hell,
5.106And in that hope, I bid you all farewell.


1.3] Phlegm: one of the four humours, cold and moist; the others are melancholy (cold and dry), blood (hot and moist), and choler (hot and dry). This poem follows one on the four humours and precedes another on the four seasons. Back to Line
1.17] hobby: a stick having the head of a horse: a children's toy. Back to Line
1.27] Gillyflowers: clove pinks. Back to Line
1.29] Aurora: Greek goddess of the dawn. Back to Line
2.21] Bables: possibly baubles, fool's scepters. Back to Line
2.59] Adam's sinful fact: original sin. Back to Line
2.64] fifth Commandement: "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" (Exodus 20.12). Back to Line
2.73] crudities: crude matter. Back to Line
3.45] glozing: deceiving. Back to Line
3.59] Adonais: a handsome youth beloved by Aphrodite; killed by a boar, he was resurrected by Proserpine on the condition he spend half his time with her and the rest with Aphrodite Back to Line
3.60] Sardana Pallas: Sardanapalus, last king of Assyria who committed suicide at Nineveh in 880 BC rather than be taken captive by the Medes. Back to Line
3.77] Stitch: sudden pain in the side.
Pleurisy: inflammation of the pleura, accompanied by fever, hard breathing, coughing, etc. Back to Line
3.82] Bedlam: Bethlehem Hospital in London, a place in which the mentally ill were imprisoned. Back to Line
4.61] exuberous: overflowing (with milk). Back to Line
4.91] Bias: Back to Line
4.95] Stone: gallstone.
reins: kidneys. Back to Line
4.101] Quinsy: inflammation of the throat, with fever. Back to Line
5.8] Bis pueri senes: "twice children are old men." Back to Line
5.30] that Celestial she: Elizabeth I, queen of England (1533-1603). Back to Line
5.33] Events in the reign of Elizabeth I. Back to Line
5.34] Philip: Philip II, king of Spain.
Albertus: Albert, archduke of Austria. Back to Line
5.44] A plot: the Gunpowder plot (1605). Back to Line
5.45] Ree: Rhé, attacked in 1627.
Cadiz: attacked in 1625. Back to Line
5.46] Palatinate: Elector Palatine Frederick V. Back to Line
5.53] one stabb'd, another lose his head: George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), and Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford (1593-1641). Back to Line
5.81] golden Bowl and silver Cord: "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern" (Ecclesiastes 12.6). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1997.