This poem came out of the November 1, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from janetmiles and marina_bonomi. It was sponsored by janetmiles. Special thanks to moonwolf1988 for britpicking.
"The Four Humours" belongs to the Steamsmith series, set in the same world as "The Steamsmith" although the main character does not appear in this poem personally. Instead it's a background piece describing a lot more about how their version of science works, with a focus on biology and the ways in which different types of people can cause technology to go haywire. (In addition to the quenching effect on antagonistic elements described below, it's also possible to overcharge a compatible element but the effects there are more complex and less easy to detail. I may explore that some other time.) You can read more about the classical elements and humourism online; the latter has an excellent diagram showing the relative qualities of the elements and humours.
The temperament of man is best when moderate,
a mixture of all four humours --
blood or sanguis, yellow bile or chole,
black bile or melan chole, and phlegm or phlegma.
In balance, the nature of man should be
neither too hot nor too cold,
neither too wet nor too dry.
The sanguine personality leaps into pleasure,
enjoying boisterous gatherings and making new friends.
Though creative and compassionate, they quickly give up
when a hobby or relationship ceases to be fun.
Easily distracted, they forget their obligations
and are rarely on time.
An excess of blood causes trouble when
the sanguis conflicts with ge, Air over Earth:
nothing can grow or put down roots,
and the great ground-engines rumble and die.
The choleric personality is ambitious and bold,
quickly rising to the top of an organisation or endeavour.
Skilled in leadership, they tend to dominate others,
especially the hapless phlegmatics.
They are never satisfied without the reins in their hands,
but do not always know where they are going.
An excess of yellow bile causes trouble when
the chole conflicts with hudor, Fire over Water:
nothing can cool or flow or send forth ripples,
and the waterworks quickly overheat.
The melancholic personality ponders everything,
whether deserving of worry or not.
Preoccupied with tragedy and cruelty,
they pour themselves into poetry and theatre --
or failing that, theatrics of the parlour variety.
Independent themselves, they forget to think of others.
An excess of black bile causes trouble when
the melan chole conflicts with aer, Earth over Air:
nothing can take flight, practicality stifles inspiration,
and the mighty skyships crash to the ground like broken-winged birds.
The phlegmatic personality is relaxed and quiet,
sometimes to the point of near torpor.
Tolerant and affectionate, they make good friends,
but prefer stability to the uncertainty of change.
They make good administrators, until pushed the wrong way,
when they can become passive-aggressive.
An excess of phlegm causes trouble when
the phlegma conflicts with pyra, Water over Fire:
nothing can strike a spark, passion is quenched,
and the forges and motors lose their power.
To be a steamsmith, a man must be balanced,
so that the energy of his self does not disturb
the delicate arrangement of elements
within the steamworks.
Only when his inner essence is so attuned
can a man comprehend the aether
and command the elements to do his bidding.
* * *
aer -- the element of Air
aether -- the element of Quintessence
element -- a cohesive atomic material which cannot readily be broken down into other things, but which can combine with itself and/or other elements to form molecules with different properties; the four classical elements form the basis of alchemical science and technology
melan chole -- the humour of black bile
chole -- the humour of yellow bile
ge -- the element of Earth
hudor -- the element of Water
humour -- one of the four primary bodily fluids, which combine to regulate the functions of the body and the mental/emotional aspects of the personality; each humour corresponds to one of the four classical elements
phlegma -- the humour of phlegm
pyra -- the element of Fire
sanguis -- the humour of blood
steamsmith -- an expert at working with alchemical science and technology
steamworks -- alchemical science and technology, particularly that which blends pyra (Fire) and hudor (Water)