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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.
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.
Here's a nice, thorough biography by the Poetry Foundation that gives the story of Marvell the Poet as well as Marvell the Political Animal.
The Collected Works
Because you never know when the urge to read "The Mower to the Glo-Worms" will strike.
Wow. If you were thinking, "All this poem needs is a techno intro and a hip-hop backbeat," then you'll dig this student video.
All in the Hair
Click through all 16 of the National Portrait Gallery's paintings of Marvell and wonder what conditioner is responsible for that soft, luxuriant hair.
For the Ages
Check out Marvell's memorial tablet (located at the church of St. Giles in the Fields in London) but be warned that "a tombstone can neither contain his character, nor is marble necessary to transmit it to posterity," for "it will be always legible in his inimitable writings" (spoken by the grave itself).
They've Written It
Here's your one-stop source for academic articles on Marvell, from studies of his politics to close-readings of individual poems.
Beach reading it is not, but if you stroll through all 19 pages on the intertwining of soul and body in Marvell's time, you'll get yourself some brand-new insights on this dialogue.
Cut it Up
For a grisly take on how dissection figures into this poem—and other Renaissance art—take your scalpel to Jonathan Sawday's The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture.
Dialogue between the Chameleon and the Lizard
Did you know he could change colors, too? Check out Nigel Smith's "exhaustive, shrewd, wary" biography, Andrew Marvell: the Chameleon, for insight into how Andy kept it fresh by changing his styles.