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Poem: "The Four Humours" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "The Four Humours"

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 Four 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)

**********************

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Comments
rix_scaedu From: rix_scaedu Date: November 3rd, 2011 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)
The tragedy of wanting to be a steamsmith, of having the ability and aptitude, but an unbalanced temperament...
Or is that where you get 'mad scientists'?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 3rd, 2011 04:14 am (UTC) (Link)

*grin*

Why, that depends on whether they are lazy ... or diligent. There are ways and ways of doing things, and clues enough in the surviving source material even here to figure out how that could work. Feel free to save what you wrote above and resubmit it as a prompt, if I don't get around to writing it between fishbowls.
marina_bonomi From: marina_bonomi Date: November 4th, 2011 08:31 am (UTC) (Link)
You know, although balance of the humours *is* the ideal in traditional European medicine (meaning it isn't 'borrowed'), the 'commentary verses' like this one:

'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.'

remind me very strongly of the wording in the Yi Jing.

I have the feeling that in this alternate universe the relationship between the British Empire and China and India (at the very least) is way different from what happened in our one.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 4th, 2011 08:55 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>> remind me very strongly of the wording in the Yi Jing.<<

Yes, the Chinese and Hindu conceptualizations of personality balance and what can happen if it's off are playing into the biology and physics here.

>>I have the feeling that in this alternate universe the relationship between the British Empire and China and India (at the very least) is way different from what happened in our one.<<

I suspect so, yes. I just stumbled across some fascinating posts about the history of racial integration in Britain. From the comparison it looks like alter-London started integrating earlier -- grudgingly, but it's there. Thinking about this further, I extrapolate that other cultures have their own specialties and discoveries. If I'm reading it right, Britain has the lead in engineering and China has the lead in medicine (likely based on traditional Chinese models that account for chi paths). Africa, I'll have to go poking around that Igbo science, Odinani, that I've been browsing for months. Middle East, probably astrophysics. Native America, if it hasn't all been creamed yet, geomancy and biology. India, not sure, beyond some of the medicinal studies that span near and far east.

It's possible that different cultures have been flung together because they need each other, if they're mastering different areas. You get what you support, really -- the British have been intrigued by gadgets for a long time, and the Chinese got interested in the human body quite early on. Also, I suspect that a fair number of invasions didn't get as far there as they did here. It's not just the 'current' history that would be different, but a lot of other stuff probably was in their past as well. (Same thing happens to me in science fiction; I tend to spot deviations all up and down the timeline, not a single fork point.) So it will take me a while to map out what's going on and the implications of it; but there's a big one, that shift in integration. They may be trying to drag their feet about it, some of them, but they're actually making rather better progress in terms of social evolution. And I think we've caught them right before the lights really start to go on.
marina_bonomi From: marina_bonomi Date: November 4th, 2011 09:07 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

You know, after writing the previous comment I started thinking about possible points of divergence, one that jumped up at me was the fall of the Ming,one of the main factors of which was a decrease in availability of silver (together with the Little Ice Age).

But a very interesting point of Ming history are the travels of Zheng He http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He

What if those in this alternate universe brought strong commercial and political ties between China, India and a part of Africa and the Ming's financial chrisis never happened? Likely China in Maryam's time would still be Chinese Han empire and we'll have a few world powers the britis empire would have to deal with on more or less equal footing, no matter how it would irk some quarters to have to 'be polite to savages'.
rix_scaedu From: rix_scaedu Date: November 5th, 2011 06:49 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

If they are world powers then the prejudice may not be about dealing with 'savages' but about dealing with foreigners - see English/French relations over the centuries.
marina_bonomi From: marina_bonomi Date: November 5th, 2011 12:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

I think there may be both, depending on who's talking (the letters of Western diplomats in imperial China are enlightening, no matter than China °was° the main power in Eastern Asia at the time).

Moreover, if slavery exists in Maryam's world (I've no idea, but I think it's likely) and if slavery is race-based as it was in Europe and the Americas at the time, it is likely that it would have the same justification: 'inferior breed' no matter how absurd.

'Savage' wasn't just 'doesn't count, technologically inferior' but also 'strange habits, doesn't conform to what's proper' (on both sides, I must say, there are interesting comments about the habits of the 'foreign devils'/'red haired barbarians' in Chinese sources).
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 5th, 2011 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

>>I think there may be both, depending on who's talking (the letters of Western diplomats in imperial China are enlightening, no matter than China °was° the main power in Eastern Asia at the time).<<

Right.

>>Moreover, if slavery exists in Maryam's world (I've no idea, but I think it's likely) and if slavery is race-based as it was in Europe and the Americas at the time, it is likely that it would have the same justification: 'inferior breed' no matter how absurd.<<

It was. I'm not sure if it's been outlawed in England yet. I do know that American history is massively different, with major implications for European history. (Remember, America had empires too.) There are divergences in Africa that I also need to track down. I suspect they had some of the same conflicts and realizations as we have, but sooner and shorter and much uglier in some cases. And that inferior breed clock? Is going to get cleaned, dismantled, and replaced with something that actually works.

I'm doing worldbuilding because some of the supporting characters are refusing to come out of the woodwork until I have. Or until I've done something else. Sheesh, and I thought Maryam was stubborn. But it's not every day that I get a whole new world, so I'm not complaining.

>>'Savage' wasn't just 'doesn't count, technologically inferior' but also 'strange habits, doesn't conform to what's proper' (on both sides, I must say, there are interesting comments about the habits of the 'foreign devils'/'red haired barbarians' in Chinese sources).<<

In this setting, it's more technologically different because the materials and forces offer a greater variety of paths to technology. Anyone can be helpless in the face of something they've never seen before. So they gradually learned to trade and share ideas, and this industrial revolution is a major example about that. Some people are quite gregarious, but a lot of them still talk to each other through gritted teeth.

Marina, I'll be relying on you for input on Chinese perspective. I remembered "foreign devils" but forgot about the red hair. Heh ... maybe I'll chuck in someone Irish just to mess with people. You know how I am with bigots, to me they're just dartboards in want of darts.
marina_bonomi From: marina_bonomi Date: November 5th, 2011 07:31 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

>>I do know that American history is massively different, with major implications for European history. (Remember, America had empires too.) There are divergences in Africa that I also need to track down. I suspect they had some of the same conflicts and realizations as we have, but sooner and shorter and much uglier in some cases. And that inferior breed clock? Is going to get cleaned, dismantled, and replaced with something that actually works. <<

One of the differences I see among slavery in the US and elsewhere is that in the ancient world, for instance, everyone could become a slave, be it as a debtor or a prisoner of war or if captured by pirates or brigands during travel. Some freedmen were among the most powerful people in the Roman empire, and a Greek slave tutor, for instance, could have a far better life than many a free citizen (they lacked political rights, but so did every other non-citizen).

The word 'slave' itself comes from 'Slav', in European history we don't have the 'automatic' division between black = slave / white = master, it's more a matter of class and money (all speaking in general, of course, individuals are individuals).

One thing no European I know 'gets' without an explanation is the whole 'passing for white' thing. To us if one looks white then s/he is white, a thing like 'but he's 1/32 black' would get a shrug and a 'So what?' from anyone.

I read a nice explanation in one of Barbara Hambly's 'Benjamin January' books. If you have to justify race-based slavery the the race submitted to it *must* deserve it somehow, being inherently inferior, from which derives that 'inferior blood' is corrupting and can't be 'eliminated' no matter how far it is. I think that is the passage that made me understand the whole craziness.

From the little I know about Islamic countries, the law there vetoes keeping another Muslim as slave, so one could have both black slaves *and* black relatives,it's a matter of religion and culture, not of skin color.

In China, slaves were more like indentured servants, a family in dire straits could sell a daughter to another family as a slave, the 'owner' would arrange a marriage for the girl when she was of age and the new family would set up home wherever they pleased.

>>Marina, I'll be relying on you for input on Chinese perspective.>>

At your service. :)

>>I remembered "foreign devils" but forgot about the red hair. Heh ... maybe I'll chuck in someone Irish just to mess with people.<<

Lol, the possible variations in hair and eye colors in Caucasians still drive the Chinese crazy. Although there *are* variations in fenotype the great majority of Chinese population is back-haired and dark-eyed, you can imagine the effect of a party of red- or blond-heads plopped in some non-major city.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 5th, 2011 06:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

It's a combination of both. Two of the major powers are England and China. Britain is into imperialism and China's term for everyone else is "foreign devils." You can imagine how well they play together. But the different countries have developed different technologies, and they aren't the only ones, and there are others not to be trifled with. So they can sneer at each other, but they're on a faster learning curve when it comes to realizing that other cultures are significant and wars are bad business.

I'm still in the process of working out who's got what. Some of the historic divergences are subtle, others dramatic. This whole world is just ... un-the-same. On close inspection it's frankly weirder than most science fiction planets or fantasy worlds. I spent several hours yesterday digging into the science, history, medicine, alchemy, etc.
marina_bonomi From: marina_bonomi Date: November 5th, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

I don't know what you are planning for Africa, but I was thinking...

Given the importance of smiths in many African cultures, what if the theory behind arche is European, but the first mechanical applications actually originated in Africa? Could it work?
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