A Dialogue between Soul and Body

The dialogue form

The dialogue is a form of poetry which is not often used. However, Marvell did write several: A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure; Clorinda and Damon; Ametas and Thestylis are other examples, the first like this one, a moral debate; the other two, pastoral poems with some religious significance. It is best to see this dialogue as being like a first class cricket match. Both sides get two innings, alternately. At the end, we have to declare the match drawn. Marvell, though clearly favouring the Soul, does not give either side the match-winning argument.

Soul says

The soul opens the batting with a powerful complaint: it is not only being imprisoned in the body, but tortured by it. The image of the soul being imprisoned is typically Platonic. Its move is to escape through the death of the body. Marvell plays with several parts of this extended conceit: ‘blinded with an Eye' makes a nice paradox. The organs of sense blind (and bind) the soul to heaven, keeping it bound to sense impressions. Blinding was a common form of torture, as was constant sound. The worst part is ‘a vain head', meaning stuffed with idle, fruitless thoughts, and a ‘double Heart', because divided.

Body replies

The body is not too well pleased with this onslaught, and accuses the soul of driving it around, when all it wants is a quiet life. It even has to get up and walk upright! (‘mine own Precipice I go'). The soul makes it restless with its own restlessness. It feels possessed by ‘this ill spirit'.

Soul's response

The soul's response is to enlarge on the ‘double Heart'. It has its own grief through being trapped in the body and has to bear the body's grief as well. We might say in modern terms, the soul here is both the psychology and the spirituality of human existence: the psychology derives from the body; the spirituality, from its heavenly origins. Left to itself, it would escape the body by letting it die; but the body's concern is to keep itself alive, and the soul is forced to help it do that. Again, Marvell makes the most of this paradox in his imagery: ‘Shipwrackt into health again'; ‘whats worse, the cure'.

Body concludes

The body is allowed its second innings. It lists the psychological suffering the soul forces on it through hope, fear, love, hatred and so on. The list goes on through the whole stanza. It climaxes with the paradox:

What but a Soul could have the wit
To build me up for Sin so fit?

Photo by Paul McIlroy, available through Creative CommonsOnly the soul has given it the consciousness of sin. Left to itself, it would live like the animals in instinctive, undifferentiated being. The final image is one that Marvell was to take up several times in his ‘Mower' poems: the body is like an undifferentiated tree growing naturally; the soul like an architect (or topiary gardener, as we might say), which trims and prunes it into all kinds of outlandish and unnatural shapes.

The key question

The final question is a real dilemma, then: Marvell has been working slowly towards it. Do human beings live ‘as Nature intended', however shapeless that life might be morally or intellectually? Or do we raise ourselves through, allowing our ‘souls' or spirits to restrain and shape our lives according to some overall design? Marvell does not push through to the soul's early conclusion: its wish for death as escape. He recognises life is something that has to be accepted, however problematic it is.

Investigating A Dialogue between Soul and Body
  • Read through A Dialogue between the Soul and Body
    • Pick out some of the images and work them out
  • Compare Marvell's Platonism here with that of Vaughan in his Ascension - Hymn
    • What are the differences in the way they express their desire to escape earthly existence?
  • What is metaphysical about this poem?
  • Compare Marvell's attitude to the body to Donne's.

(see Themes and significant ideas > Being Human.)

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