A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body
Andrew Marvell was definitely not your average skulk-in-the-garret, quiet kind of poet. You know—the kind of artist that chills out at cafes and then dies of tuberculosis? Nope. Wrong guy. He was a politician as well as a poet, a big supporter of anti-monarchy movements in the seventeenth century. Sometimes he even combined his two passions, like in his "Horatian Ode"—a poem that celebrates Oliver Cromwell, the guy who beheaded King Charles I and set up his own republic.
In this poem, "A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body" (which was published posthumously in 1681), Marvell zeroes in on a more philosophical conflict: a venting session between the body and the soul about who's got it worse. But just because this is about abstract stuff like souls and sin doesn't mean Marvell can't get all World of Warcraft on us. Packed with images of tyranny and torture, this dialogue has enough political rhetoric to fill a Department of Defense briefing. Picture the U.S. in 1863, or England in 1645, and you've got a good picture of what's going down in this poem. That's right, folks: civil war.
But wait a sec: how the heck can a soul and its body be at war? Aren't these two guys in it to win it, bound together in a single organism?
Well, it's complicated. It's pretty clear what Marvell means by a body, but a soul is a slippery, not-so-definable thing. From the body's stanzas, we know that the soul is in charge of emotions, morality, and being alive in general. It's like a conscience, a brain, and the life force all rolled up into one. Today we assume that the brain is part of the body, made up of the same cells, fed by the same blood, directing everything else that goes on. But back in the seventeenth century there was a mind-body split. The soul-mind and the body were seen as distinct entities.
And heads up: not only are they different, they're also unhappy with each other. Is this a friendly symbiotic relationship, as in, "I'll walk you to the park and smell the grass and pet the dogs if you'll let me feel happy about it"? Fuhgeddaboutit. This is a mutually miserable, lose-lose situation, each one complaining that the other does nothing but cause pain and trouble. Talk about your original Odd Couple.
Plus, by the final stanza, it's clear that this poetic therapy session has accomplished exactly nothing. There's no resolution, no compromise, no divorce in sight. Like peanut butter and onions or the Jonas Brothers (yes, we went there), body and soul face a permanent and unhappy union, until death does them part.
Why Should I Care?
Sure, we know from neuroscientists that your brain is you, but, even though it directs your nerves and muscles, sometimes it's hard to get your mind and body on the same page. For instance, when your mind is like, "Don't eat that cupcake with its perfectly shaped dome of vanilla buttercream frosting, don't ingest a thousand calories and fat, don't do it don't do it don't do it," and your hand somehow reaches for it anyway.
This is what Andrew Marvell is dramatizing in this dialogue. What is the relationship between the mind-soul and the body? Is there a way to make this relationship less unhappy and messed up? Can we understand it better if we imagine it in political terms, using analogies to governments and rights and citizens?
Even though this poems seems to end exactly where it began—with body and soul equally ticked off—reading the dialogue lets you in on some pretty sweet philosophical insights. Marvell doesn't shy away from the big questions. You get to think about where the soul-mind-life force ends and where the body begins, who's in charge and why it matters. Which pain is worse: emotional or physical? This debate's got it covered. What about morality, death, and the possibility of life afterward? To explore these big questions, and much, much more, dive right in.