If everything hath sense and reason, then
There might be beasts, and birds, and fish, and men
As vegetables and minerals, had they
The animal shape to express that way;
And vegetables and minerals may know 5
As man, though like to trees and stones they grow.1
Then coral trouts may through the water glide,
And pearled minnows swim on either side,
And mermaids, which in the sea delight,
Might all be made of watery lilies white, 10
Set on salt wat’ry billows as they flow,
Which like green banks appear thereon to grow.
And mariners i’th’midst their ship might stand
Instead of mast, hold sails in either hand.
On mountain tops the Golden Fleece2 might feed, 15
Some hundred years their ewes bring forth their breed.
Large deer of oak might through the forest run,
Leaves on their heads might keep them from the sun;
Instead of shedding horns, their leaves might fall,
And acorns to increase a wood of fawns withal. 20
Then might a squirrel for a nut be cracked,
If nature had that matter so compact,
And the small sprouts which on the husk do grow
Might be the tail, and make a brushing show.
Then might the diamonds which on rocks oft lie 25
Be all like to some little sparkling fly.
Then might a leaden hare, if swiftly run,
Melt from that shape, and so a pig become.3
And dogs of copper-mouths sound like a bell,
So when they kill a hare, ring out his knell.4 30
Hard iron men shall have no cause to fear
To catch a fall, when they a-hunting were,
Nor in the wars should have no use of arms,
Nor feared5 to fight; they could receive no harms.
For if a bullet on their breasts should hit, 35
Fall on their back, but straightways up may get,
Or if a bullet on their head do light,
May make them totter, but not kill them quite.
And stars be like the birds with twinkling wing,
When in the air they fly, like larks might sing, 40
And as they fly, like wandering planets show,
Their tails may like to blazing comets grow.
When they on trees do rest themselves from flight,
Appear like fixed stars in clouds of night.
Thus may the sun be like a woman fair,6 45
And the bright beams be as her flowing hair,
And from her eyes may cast a silver light,
And when she sleeps, the world be as dark night.
Or women may of alabaster be,
And so as smooth as polished ivory, 50
Or as clear crystal, where hearts may be shown,
And all their falsehoods to the world be known,
Or else be made of rose, and lilies white,
Both fair and sweet, to give the soul delight,
Or else be made like tulips fresh in May, 55
By nature dressed, clothed several colours gay.
Thus every year there may young virgins spring,
But wither and decay as soon again.
While they are fresh, upon their breast might set
Great swarms of bees, from thence sweet honey get. 60
Or on their lips, for gillyflowers, flies
Drawing delicious sweet that therein lies.
Thus every maid like several flowers show,
Not in their shape, but like in substance grow.
Then tears which from oppressèd hearts do rise, 65
May gather into clouds within the eyes,
From whence those tears, like showers of rain may flow
Upon the banks of cheeks, where roses grow;
After those showers of rain, so sweet may smell,
Perfuming all the air that near them dwell. 70
But when the sun of joy and mirth doth rise,
Darting forth pleasing beams from loving eyes,
Then may the buds of modesty unfold,
With full blown confidence the sun behold.
But grief as frost them nips, and withering die, 75
In their own pods7 entombèd lie.
Thus virgin cherry trees, where blossoms blow,
So red ripe cherries on their lips may grow.
Or women plum trees at each fingers end,
May ripe plums hang, and make their joints to bend. 80
Men sycamores, which on their breast may write
Their amorous verses, which their thoughts indite.8
Men’s stretchèd arms may be like spreading vines,
Where grapes may grow, so drink of their own wine.
To plant large orchards need no pains nor care, 85
For everyone their sweet fresh fruit may bear.
Then silver grass may in the meadows grow,
Which nothing but a scythe of fire can mow.
The wind, which from the north a journey takes,
May strike those silver strings, and music make. 90
Thus may another world, though matter still the same,
By changing shapes, change humours,9 properties, and name.10
Thus Colossus, a statue wondrous great,11
When it did fall, might straight get on his feet.
Where ships, which through his legs did swim, he might 95
Have blown12 their sails, or else have drowned them quite.
The Golden Calf that Israel joyed to see13
Might run away from their idolatry.
The Basan bull of brass might be, when roar,
His metalled throat might make his voice sound more.14 100
The hill which Muhammad did call might come
At the first word, or else away might run.15
Thus Pompey’s statue might rejoice to see
When killed was Caesar, his great enemy.16
The wooden horse that did great Troy betray 105
Have told what’s in him, and then run away.17
Achilles’s arms against Ulysses plead,
And not let wit against true valor speed.18
- This poem is taken from Cavendish’s Philosophical Fancies ([London, 1653], pp. 56-63), the natural-philosophical hybrid treatise and poetic collection that Cavendish imagined as the companion volume to Poems and Fancies. This poem has been transcribed, modernized, glossed, and annotated by Liza Blake and Farheen Khan.
The opening gambit of the poem is ambitious: if, Cavendish says, everything in nature is alive (has some kind of sense and reason), then vegetables and minerals might know, might have some form of knowledge, just as humans do. Much of Philosophical Fancies espouses a vitalist vision of nature, in which everything in nature does have some degree of sense and reason. In the middle of this twisty opening to the poem is the thought experiment that will make up the majority of the lines: what would it mean to imagine animate forms (beasts, birds, men) with different substances or matter (vegetable or mineral)?
- An allusion to the myth of Jason and the golden fleece, although here the golden fleece is imagined as making up actual sheep themselves, which can birth ewes also made of golden fleece.
- Cavendish adds a marginal note: “a pig of lead.”
- A “knell” is the “sound made by a bell when struck or rung, esp. the sound of a bell rung slowly and solemnly, as immediately after a death or at a funeral” (Oxford English Dictionary [hereafter OED]).
- i.e., be afraid
- This line begins a long section of the poem where Cavendish works with some of the standard tropes and metaphors of love poetry and the blazon (in which a poet compares a beloved woman’s eyes to celestial bodies, skin to alabaster, cheeks to roses and lilies, etc.).
- Cavendish adds a marginal note: “the husk.”
- To indite is “[t]o put into words, compose (a poem, tale, speech, etc.); to give a literary or rhetorical form to (words, an address); to express or describe in a literary composition” (OED).
- Humours are, “[i]n ancient and medieval physiology and medicine: any of four fluids of the body (blood, phlegm, choler, and so-called melancholy or black bile) believed to determine, by their relative proportions and conditions, the state of health and the temperament of a person or animal” (OED).
- This couplet expresses the philosophical thought experiment of the whole poem in miniature: what would it mean to imagine the matter or material of the world, but with unusual shapes or forms?
- Colossus was “the huge bronze statue of the sun god Helios at Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world” (OED). The statue supposedly stood over a harbor, and ships sailed through its legs; here, the statue is imagined as coming to life and interacting with ships that sail by and under it. This line initiates the final turn of the poem, where Cavendish shifts from imagining animals and people made of unusual matter, to imagining inanimate shaped matter as animate.
- The word “blown” has been emended from Cavendish’s “blow’d”.
- The “Golden Calf” in the Bible is “the idol set up by Aaron, and the similar images set up by Jeroboam; sometimes proverbially with reference to the ‘worship’ of wealth” (OED). The worship of the calf usually represents “idolatrous” worship, distracting worshippers from the true admiration of God with the worship of the physical world or wealth. Cavendish here imagines the calf as potentially running away from the idolatrous admiration of its worshippers.
- The “Basan bull” was “a notoriously strong bull from the region of the Bashan (Psalm 22:12)” (in Women Poets of the English Civil War, ed. Sarah Ross and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018], p. 204n). Cavendish here imagines the Basan bull as simultaneously a brazen or brass bull, roaring from a metal throat.
- See Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Boldness” (in Essays, ed. John Pitcher [New York, Penguin Books, 1985], p. 95; italics original): “Mahomet made the people believe that he would call an hill to him, and from the top of it offer up his prayers for the observers of his law. The people assembled; Mahomet called the hill to come to him, again and again; and when the hill stood still, he was never a whit abashed, but said, If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.” In Cavendish’s poem the hill has been given the power to come (or not) in response to Muhammad’s call.
- Julius Caesar defeated Pompey in a battle for control over Rome; here, Pompey’s statue is given sentience to rejoice in the death of his former enemy.
- A reference to the famous Trojan Horse, a large wooden horse given to the Trojans by the Greeks to commemorate their supposed victory over the Greeks in the Trojan War. The Trojans brought the horse inside the city walls, and the Greek soldiers hidden inside came out at night and sacked Troy.
- In the Trojan War, Achilles was a great fighter, while Ulysses represented martial cunning and wisdom; here, Achilles’s arms (his armor) plead on behalf of his bravery.