The poem, A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body by Andrew Marvell describes the conflict between the human Body and the human Soul, each attributing its troubles and sufferings to the other. The Soul feels that it is a prisoner inside the Body while the Body feels that the Soul is a tyrant imposing all kinds of restraints and restrictions upon the Body.
The Soul wishes that the Body should die so that the Soul can go back to heaven, its original abode. The Body, in turn, holds the Soul responsible for all the sins that the Body commits. All sins, says the Body, are the results of the many and conflicting emotions which the Soul experiences.
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Imagery and Metaphysical Elements in the Poem
The poem, A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body by Andrew Marvell contains vivid and concrete imagery and makes use of a number of conceits of the metaphysical kind. In fact, the very basis of the poem is the metaphysical kind.
In fact, the very basis of the poem is the metaphysical concept that the Soul and the Body are separate entities. The Body feeling itself to be a victim of the Soul’s tyranny, and the Soul believing itself to be a prisoner inside the Body are metaphysical conceits.
In the opening speech, we have a graphic picture of a prisoner being held in chains and fetters, and about to be hanged on the gallows. In the second speech, we have a vivid picture of the Body going about like a walking precipice.
In the third stanza, we have a vivid picture of a ship nearing its destination but getting wrecked just when it is close to the harbor. In the final speech we have a series of vivid pictures describing the physical manifestations of the emotions experienced by the Soul.
A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body Analysis
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 will liberate me from this human body in which I am being held as a prisoner in so many ways? I am housed in this Body all the bones of which are clamped on me like bolts. The feet of this Body is like fetters for me, and its hands are like manacles. The feet as well as the hands are like chains for me.
The eyes of the Body are a binding obstruction for me; and the impact of external sounds on the Body’s ear-drum has a deafening effect on me. I am suspended within the Body’s complex neuro-vascular system (consisting of nerves, arteries, and veins).
Each organ of the Body causes torture to me, and I am especially tormented by the vanity of its head and the duplicity of its heart, besides being tormented by the vices which are committed by each other organ of the Body.
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.
O who will liberate me in my entirety from the restraints of this dictatorial Soul? The Soul is like a thin, pointed stake driven into me and left there. The Soul is stretched upright in me, forcing me into an unnatural, stiff, and unbending posture so that I feel like a walking precipice always in danger of collapsing and getting destroyed. The Soul certainly keeps me warm and animates me, but I do not need either warmth or the capacity to move.
Those results can be achieved by me even through a fever which can shake me and give me heat. Actually the Soul, having no other outlet for its malice, gives life to me only in order to let me die afterward. Indeed, I am in no position to get any rest at any time because I am possessed by the Soul which is an evil spirit.
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.
I do not understand what magic works to keep me as a prisoner here and to force me to suffer for the sorrows of the Body. I, who is supposed to be incapable of feeling any pain, do yet feel pained whenever the Body suffers from any ailment,. It is strange that I should have to devote all my care to the preservation of this Body which has a tormenting effect on me and which, thus, tries to wreck me.
I am forced not only to endure the diseases of the Body, but worse than that is the fact that I have to endure the treatment which the Body undergoes for its diseases and which restore it to health. The restoration of the Body to health is even worse for me than the diseases which afflict it and which make me suffer also.
Whenever the Body seems to be threatened with death, I have the feeling that I shall soon be released from my imprisonment and shall then go back to heaven; but when the Body gets well again, I feel like sailors who have been ship-wrecked.
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.
But no medicine can ever cure the diseases which you, O Soul, impose upon me. When you experience any hope, I am racked with cramp. When you experience any fear, I feel shaken as if by palsy. If you experience love, I am fevered with the plague.
When you experience hatred, I am consumed with internal ulcers. If you experience joy, I feel madly elated. If you experience grief, I feel madly depressed. It is your knowledge which makes me know all this, and it is your memory which does not let me forget any of these things.
Only a Soul like you could have the ingenuity to make of me a house in which sin has taken up its abode. All the sins that I commit originate from you. You have adopted the same technique in relation to me which architects adopt in building houses from the logs of wood obtained from the green trees which have been cut down in a forest and which have then been trimmed and reduced to the required size by carpenters with their axes and saws.
The poem, A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body, presents a fundamental aspect of our human predicament. The conflict here is in man himself of irreconcilable opposites. Paradox alone can do justice to our fallen condition: our vision blinds us, and our hearing makes us deaf.
This could mean that ultimate truth cannot be conveyed through the avenue of the five senses; if the Soul inclines too far towards sense-perception, its inner vision will be impaired, and it is the intuitive powers of the mind (or pure intellect) that provide true knowledge. After the Fall, however, this inner vision became largely obscured.
Marvell’s dialogue suggests that the division of man into male and female; both as an individual and a lover, man is at the mercy of a cosmic joke or paradox imposing division and preventing union.
By stressing his despair at the separation in such a forcible manner, Marvell compels us to realize the infinite sadness of our fallen condition, thus, indirectly drawing attention to the nature of the perfection that was lost. Besides, the poem is also remarkable for its simplicity of language and its singing quality. The feeling expressed in A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body is strong, sincere, and spontaneous. Over, the poem consists of all the qualities that we expect in a good lyric.