Of the Working of Several Motions of Nature (from Phil. Fancies and Phil. Phys. Op.)

Motions do work according as they find1
Matter that’s fit and proper for each kind.
Sensitive spirits2 work not all one way,
But as the matter is, they cut, carve, lay,
Joining together matter, solid light,3                             5
And build and form some figures straight upright,
Or make them bending, and so jutting out,
And some are large, and strong, and big about,
And some are thick, and hard, and close unite;4
Others are flat, and low, and loose, and light.             10
But when they meet with matter fine and thin,
Then they do weave, as spiders when they spin.
All that is woven is soft, smooth, thin things,
As flow’ry vegetables and animal skins.5
Observe the grain of every thing, you’ll see                 15
Like interwoven threads lie evenly,6
And like to diaper and damask wrought,7
In several works that for our table’s bought,
Or like to carpets which the Persian made,8
Or satin smooth, which is the Florence trade.9            20
Some matter they engrave, like ring and seal,
Which is the stamp of Nature’s commonweal.10
’Tis Nature’s arms,11 where she doth print
On all her works, as coin that’s in the mint.12
Some several sorts they join together glued,                25
As matter solid with some that’s fluid.
Like to the earthly ball13, where some are mixed
Of several sorts, although not fixed,
For though the figure of the Earth may last
Longer than others, yet at last may waste.                   30
And so the sun, and moon, and planets all,
Like other figures, at the last may fall.
The matter’s still the same, but motion may
Alter it into figures every way,
Yet keep the property, to make such kind                     35
Of figures fit, which motion out can find.
Thus may the figures change, if motion hurls
That matter other14 ways, for other worlds.

  1. “Of the Working of Several Motions of Nature” was first included in Cavendish’s 1653 Philosophical Fancies, the first iteration of her natural philosophical treatise, which would later undergo three major revisions in 1655, 1663, and 1668, respectively. The first revision of her 1653 treatise, the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions (PPO), includes nearly all of the 1653 text as its “Part I” and adds a large amount of additional material. In the 1663 and 1668 revisions of her natural philosophical system, she removes her poetic chapters, including this poem, which is a poetic exploration of the role of motion (one of her key natural philosophical concepts, alongside matter and figure) in the creation of the universe.

    We selected this poem to edit because it offers a useful and evocative summary of the role of motion in Cavendish’s natural philosophy, and because of its swerve to the contemplation of the eventual destruction of the cosmos at the end. The Philosophical Fancies was published just weeks after the first edition of her Poems and Fancies, and yet it contains no mention of the atoms described in several poems in Part I of her Poems and Fancies. However, despite the fact that she drops all mention of atoms in her Philosophical Fancies (and seems to explicitly reject atomism in her 1655 PPO), there is more continuity across the two poetic descriptions of matter than has often been recognized. Readers of Poems and Fancies Part I will recognize in this poem the importance of motion present in several atom poems (see, e.g., “Motion is According to the Figure,” or “Motion is the Life of All Things”), and its role in both destroying and subsequently creating new figures (see the especially memorable description of this in the Part I poem “Motion Makes Atoms a Bawd for Figure”). The idea that matter closely packed together or closely united (found in line 9 of this poem) creates harder or more durable objects can be found as well in Part I poem “All Things Last or Dissolve According to the Composure of Atoms”. The personification of Nature and the comparison of her creations to objects made by humans resonates with the personifications of Nature that especially occupy Part III of her Poems and Fancies (especially what Blake calls elsewhere the “Nature’s X” poems). The seeming collapse, via metaphor, of Nature’s “art” or creations and objects manufactured by humans goes against the hard distinctions drawn by many other seventeenth century thinkers. Bakaj also appreciated in this poem the way that it urges her reader to look inwards and question the makeup of objects, materiality, creation, and science.

    This poem falls into two uneven parts. The beginning offers an overview of her theories on matter, motion, and figure. She describes to her reader the role of “sensitive spirits”—subtle, vital, and active parts of her vitalist vision of matter, whose motions give matter the figures or forms that give it its properties. The poem details the “work” of these sensitive spirits, emphasizing the variety of properties that they can produce in matter through their different motions. Using mundane images of spider webs, vegetables, animal pelts, and even household fabrics, she allows her reader to understand the composition and motions of different kinds of matter beyond the realm accessible by human senses.

    The ending of the poem then zooms outwards from the view of small, mundane objects to a large, planetary view of matter, destruction, and creation. In this view, she reminds the reader that all objects, even the planets themselves, are impermanent forms of matter. This is an argument resonant with many poems by Hester Pulter, including Pulter’s “Universal Dissolution”; “hurled” and “world,” used by Cavendish in the final couplet, is also favorite rhyme of Pulter, and Pulter likewise fantasizes about how the dissolution of matter as we know it might lead to the creation of other worlds. Cavendish hints in this poem not only at the impermanence of forms but also at the conservation of matter as she insists that the inevitable fall or destruction of all things—including the “earthly ball” or globe on which we dwell—does not diminish the “property” that all matter retains, even as it loses the forms or figures that we recognize. She ends with the suggestion that due to this conservation of matter amidst destruction, the new figures that motion can create include not only small natural bodies, but also new worlds. It conjures the destruction of the universe, in other words, in order to describe the full creative potentiality of matter, and the motion that makes it. We invite our readers to speculate on why the poem ends in such a different place than it began, or why Cavendish has chosen to join the two different parts of the poem into one larger composition.

    “Of the Working of Several Motions of Nature” was edited by Liza Blake and UTM undergraduate Angela Bakaj (a double major in English and Biology) in a modernized edition. We collated two copies of the 1655 PPO (both copies held at the British Library, under the shelfmarks 31.e.8 and C.39.h.27(2), respectively) against the version of the 1653 Philosophical Fancies available on Early English Books Online, finding no substantive variants beyond a hand correction in the 1655 PPO (which we adopted and noted accordingly). We transcribed and modernized the text, and added explanatory glosses. Some of these glosses rely on definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED), and are noted accordingly. We are grateful to the University of Toronto Excellence Award for funding Bakaj’s work on this edition.

  2. “Sensitive spirits” are what Cavendish dubs the subtle, vital, parts of matter whose motion creates figures, or give matter its shape and properties.
  3. Depending on punctuation, this line could mean that it joins together matter, which can be both solid and light, or that it joins together matter, which can be appositively redefined as light made solid. We are not entirely sure which was intended, but because we were modernizing punctuation we were required to make a choice; we thought the idea of matter as solid light was interesting, but ask readers to keep the other possibility in mind as well!
  4. i.e., some unite closely together (and are for that reason hard)
  5. Cavendish compares the softness of fine, thin matter with vegetables and animals skins, suggesting (in the lines that follow) that because they are soft, vegetables and animal skins themselves might have a woven texture on the micro scale.
  6. Cavendish claims that if one were to regard soft and fine objects closely, their composition of matter would resemble an interwoven network of threads.
  7. Diaper and damask were two luxurious and decorative types of textiles used commonly for tablecloths (OED). Here and below Cavendish compares the things of nature to things manufactured by humans.
  8. Cavendish references the Persian practice of rug making.
  9. Cavendish names Florence, Italy as a major center for the production of satin. In lines 19 and 20, she appeals not only to luxury manufactured goods, but to foreign luxury goods.
  10. Cavendish often personifies Nature in her poetry (see esp. Part III of her Poems and Fancies, where she depicts Nature as a busy housewife). Here as she references the process of ratifying a document with the impression of an engraved signet ring unto a bead of wet wax to create a seal.
  11. i.e., coat of arms or symbol like would be pressed into a seal
  12. Cavendish reiterates the metaphor of Nature as leaving a stamp or impression on the world, here comparing her impression to the minting of coins with a nation’s coat of arms.
  13. i.e., the globe of the Earth.
  14. The word “other” was printed as “of her” in both the 1653 Philosophical Fancies and the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions (PPO). In 5 copies of the 1655 PPO (those held at the Bibliothèque Mazarine, the British Library (two of three copies), and the Hendrick Conscience Heritage Library (both copies)), it has been corrected by hand to “other.” As this correction makes sense to us, and is also listed in the Errata, we have carried it forward in our edition. That the typo from the first edition was carried forward into the second edition before being caught and listed in the Errata is indicative of just how closely the 1655 PPO follows the parts of the 1653 Philosophical Fancies that it reprints.