Updated: Jul 21
"The Dialogue between the Soul and the Body" by Andrew Marvell is a poem about the raging argument between the soul and the body. Both entities claim to be victims of each other's actions while engaging in sinful behaviour. This metaphysical poem delves into the themes of sins and souls.
O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart.
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest.
What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine?
Where whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
And all my care itself employs;
That to preserve which me destroys;
Constrain’d not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure;
And ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwreck’d into health again.
But physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego.
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.
Work summary: A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body Poem Summary
The poem begins with the soul presenting its grievances. Saying, it laments as it has been a prisoner in so many ways to the body and is yearning for liberation from various physical constraints. The soul describes the body as a prison, with bones clamped like bolts, and hands and feet serving as chains. The eyes are a closed barrier and the eardrum has a deafening effect by the external sounds. It is suspended in the nervous system of the body like a prisoner. Each organ causes torture and is victimized by the vanity of the head and the duplicity of the heart. Complaints, saying; I am the one who is affected by the sins committed by the body organs.
In response, the body defends itself and presents its own points. Asking, Who will liberate me from this tyrannous soul? The soul is a pointed stake driven into me and forcing me into a stiff and unbending posture so that I feel always in danger of collapsing and getting destroyed. While the soul provides warmth and facilitates movement, the body argues that it has no need for these benefits and suggests that even a fever could generate similar heat. The body sees the soul as an unwelcome and malevolent spirit that denies it any rest or respite.
The soul again starts to argue its points. Agreeing that it doesn’t know which magic spells make it suffer for the sorrows of the Body even though it is supposed to be incapable of feeling any pain. It says I don't know why I care to preserve the body which has a tormenting effect on me. The soul endures the physical and emotional pain caused by diseases and their treatments. Even the body's restoration to health becomes a source of suffering for the soul. Whenever the body seems to be dead soon, it feels that it will release from its imprisonment upon the body's imminent death, but as soon as the body recovers, the soul is again in a shipwrecked state.
The body intervenes again, claiming that it bears the consequences of the soul's experiences. Says that no medicine can cure the diseases you impose upon me. When you experience hope, I am suffering from cramps. When you experience fear, it is I, the body who feels the trembling. If you experience love, I am fevered with the plague. When you experience hatred, I am inundated with internal ulcers. If you experience joy, I feel madly cheered. If you experience grief, I feel depressed. It's your knowledge which makes me know about this all and it's your memory that I can't forget any of them. You are the one who has the cleverness to make me a house of sin. All the sins that I commit originate from you. It's like the same technique that an architect adopts in building houses from woods obtained from the green trees which have been cut down in a forest. But it's trimmed to the required size by the carpenters with their axes and saws.
Aitken, G.A. ED. "Poems of Andrew Marvell". 1900: George Routledge and sons. London.
~ Literpretation Team for Education