Study Guide

A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Rhyming couplets give the stanzas of this dialogue a neat, tied-together sound, emphasizing the logical structure of the arguments. Things sound more convincing (and definitely more memorable) when they're bound together with rhyme. Take one of the soul's complaints deep in stanza 3:

    And all my care itself employs;
    That to preserve which me destroys
    (25-26)

    The couplet rhyme of "employs" and "destroys" underlines their logical connection. Everything the body does destroys the soul.

    Alliteration and Assonance

    Marvel also uses alliteration like salt: sparingly, to enhance the flavor. Two punchy examples, using D- and B-words, occur in the first stanza, underlining the surprise of the soul's paradoxes:

    Deaf with the drumming of an ear (6)

    and emphasizing the discomfort of its prison:

    bolts of bones (3)

    The body gets into the game too, hitting the M's and L's in "has made me live to let me die" (18) and the H's in "hatred's hidden ulcer" (36). It's just making sure we realize how wicked that soul is.

    Assonance, or the repetition of similar vowel sounds, also leaps out of the line to grab our attention by the neck. "Green trees" (44) stacks up some balanced E's, while "blinded with an eye" (5) doubles the long I sound without even using two I's. At line 20, the body points up its vexation with a series of short, snippy I's: "ill spirit it possest" (20).

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Marvell calls it a dialogue, but is it? In the genre sense, yes, because the poem involves two characters who are chewing the fat about some philosophical issues.

    But if you read closely, you'll see that with all this talk there's actually very little conversation. In other words, the body and soul aren't actually talking to each other; instead, they're addressing some rhetorical "who." In fact, since neither of them bothers to address any of the problems brought up by the other, it's like they aren't even listening to each other at all. It's only in the final stanza, when the body whips out a "thou" at line 32, that this "dialogue" starts to sound like one.

    So why call it a "dialogue" at all? By using that term, Marvell's title sets us up for two viewpoints. And, truthfully, that's what we get. Instead of emphasizing the conversational give-and-take of the body and soul, though, this "dialogue" refocuses our attention on the issues: what's being said, who's saying it, and whether it makes sense. In the end, the dialogue is really a tri-logue (if you follow us), since both the soul and the body are making their claims much more for the reader's benefit, than for each other's. In that way, we are the ones who get the final say-so on who has it worse: soul, or body?

  • Setting

    If it's helpful to think of this poem as the "Magic School Bus: Journey to the Soul," go right ahead and set this baby inside some standard-issue human body with the soul dishing up its insights from the physiological depths. Just remember to push aside those "chains/ Of nerves, and arteries, and veins" (7-8) so you can actually see what's going on.

    But Marvell probably pictured his poem in some kind of abstract space, as a philosophical exercise rather than a conversation happening inside the body or brain. After all, we're already going along with his image of a soul with a voice box. Why not go whole-hog and picture soul and body sitting down together at a cozy philosophical tea table? Scones, anyone?

  • Speaker

    Soul

    "A soul hung up, as 'twere, in chains" (7)? Talk about a desperate housewife. This soul is hysterical over its confinement in the body. It's not just the creepy furniture—ropes of veins and arteries, too-loud ears; it's also the continual problems with maintenance. Whenever the body catches a disease, the soul has to endure the pain of both being sick and getting well again when all it really wants is O-U-T: "and ready oft the port to gain,/ Am shipwreck'd into health again" (29-30). One man's death is another soul's escape.

    Whiny and self-centered, this soul is disgusted by the weakness and physicality of the body. Its rhetorical questions, posed to a possibly sympathetic who-knows-who, make it clear that the soul longs for higher and better things. It deals with real stuff, okay, like feelings and morals. It belongs in a more spiritual realm, not in this two-bit body.

    Body

    The soul definitely doesn't have a monopoly on whining, but somehow the body comes off as more likable. It accuses the soul of acting maliciously—"And, wanting where its spite to try,/ Has made me live to let me die" (17-18)—keeping it alive and aware only to hit it upside the head with sin and death. Since when was that fair?

    Plus, given that the soul gets to eventually re-join heaven, while the body has nothing but old age and a grave to look forward to, the body's complaints start to sound a little more legit. Although the soul sure doesn't see it that way, it looks like the dude with the skeleton got the raw end of the bargain.

    That point is really driven home at the poem's end. It seems like Body and Soul have equal gripes, heading into stanza 4, but that Marvell chooses to end with the body, and give it an extra 4 lines on top, suggests that his sympathies lie more there than with ol' Mr. Soul.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    Although the language and imagery are straightforward, the sprinkling of paradox and Marvell's full-on embrace of seventeenth-century body-and-soul philosophy can make the concepts a chilly climb for most readers. Pack a coat, and don't forget to Shmoop before heading out.

  • Calling Card

    Political Rhetoric

    Although it doesn't appear in every poem, the density of political imagery in this dialogue offers a pretty good clue that we're reading something Marvell-ous. Scholars debate long and hard about how Marvell's politics surface in his non-political poems, but his patriotic language is super-obvious in this one. Check out the "Horatian Ode" for political Marvell waxing eloquent about the "inglorious arts of peace" (10).

    Wit

    There's not a lot of LOLZ in this complain-fest, but the pileup of paradoxes in stanzas 1 and 2 put Marvell's trademark wittiness on proud display. Like the other metaphysical poets he's often grouped with, Marvell gives a lot of poem-space to wordplay and paradox, writing poetry that's both sophisticated and almost absurd. To sample some naughtier double entendres, take a spin through "To His Coy Mistress," Marvell's best-known work and one of the most famous love poems of all time. Just don't ask your teacher what "quaint" means.

  • Form and Meter

    Iambic Tetrameter Couplets

    If you've read much classic poetry at all, then you should know the drill. If a line sounds like "daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM… whenWill itStop," it's made up of iambs. These guys are sets of two syllables with the first one unstressed and the second one stressed. Care for an e.g? (Stressed syllables are bolded):

    O who shall, from this dungeon, raise (1)

    We know it's tough, but if you tally these iamb pairs up super-carefully you'll get (drumroll, please)… four of 'em. That makes this line iambic tetrameter, with "tetra-" meaning "four." Since Marvell's a regular kinda guy, each line follows—pretty much—the same pattern.

    We do get some telling exceptions though. Check this out:

    Tortur'd, besides each other part,
    In a vain head, and doub le heart
    . (9-10)

    The last three beats (or feet) of these lines are iambic still, but check out the first two beats of both lines with the words "Tortur'd" and "In a." Instead of daDUM, you should hear DUMda. Those aren't iambs then, but the reverse, which is a called a trochee. So why the change? This comes at the end of the Soul's first statement in the poem, and we think Marvel changes the rhythmic gears up here to really drive those final points home. The Soul is "Tortur'd," tortured we tell you! The poem flips the beat script to subtly underscore that point.

    How about rhyme you ask? That's easy-peasy: AABBCCDDEE (annnnnd we could keep going if you're really interested). In other words, this poem is written in rhymed couplets (the letters stand for the matching end rhymes). Or, in plain English, the lines are rhymed in pairs.

    Finally, in terms of form we get pretty regular stanzas of 10 lines each. But what's this cancerous growth on the bottom of stanza four? This guy doesn't reel it in until line 14. So what's that about? Is Marvell sneakily picking sides in the great soul versus body showdown? If more lines = more argumentative support, it seems like the body's 4-line last say gives it a slight edge.

  • Paradox

    We understand paradox because we misunderstand it. Bam. Scratching your head over these seemingly illogical pieces of Marvell-ian insight? At first glance, paradoxes seem absurd, but delve deeper and you'll discover the secret code under the grey, scratchy label, the meaning behind the madness. Marvell uses these mind-benders to make you think deeply and to highlight whatever is startling or contradictory about the relationship between the soul and the body, life and death, physical and emotional pain.

    This dialogue tackles some huge topics, and it's no surprise that a lot of what goes down between the body and soul seems completely cray-cray. Paradoxes emphasize the craziness—and also explain it away.

    • Lines 5-6: The soul ramps up its complaints with some well-placed paradox, making sure we realize that living in a body is not all it's cracked up to be. Did you list "sight" and "hearing" on your Thanksgiving "I am thankful for.." list? Think again, clueless. This soul is blinded by eyes and deafened by ears. That's what happens to refined spiritual essence when it's forced inside a human being.
    • Lines 17-18: The body strikes a more pitiful note with its paradox. It's obsessed with the idea that not living at all would be better than living and then dying. And since there's no heaven for it to look forward to, death really is the end. That means that the soul is particularly spiteful in animating the body: it brings the body to life only to let it die.
    • Lines 23-24: According to the soul, one of the worst things about its situation is feeling every bodily pain. On its own, the soul is like a fluffy, vaporous cloud, feeling nothing. But inside the body, everything is painful paradox. Suddenly the unfeeling soul is full of feeling, all of it bad.
    • Lines 28-29: This soul likes nothing more than a nice, juicy paradox. Here the jolt of unexpected comes from the soul's claim that diseases are bad but cures are worse. Health is a shipwreck because this soul wants nothing but death. And if heaven is the long-awaited port, then a long healthy life must be a high seas disaster. What was that again? It all makes sense if you're a soul longing for death.
    • Line 30: It's no surprise that the soul goes out with a paradoxical bang.
  • Physical Sickness

    The body and soul are so completely sick of each other that it's no surprise sickness surfaces as a heavyweight metaphor in the poem. The soul complains about actual physical pains, but then bends this into paradox, assuring us that the cure is even worse than the disease. The body, on the other hand, spins a web of metaphor, making the pains of emotion and memory vivid and understandable by comparing them to bodily diseases. What with the soul's seesaw between sick-and-well, and the body's psychological torment, it's hard to say whose pains are worse.

    • Lines 15-16: The body calls the soul a fever to emphasize both the discomfort and pointlessness of being alive. Instead of feeling grateful for the chance to be alive and go swimming and eat potato chips in the summer sun, the body thinks of life as a disease: unpleasant while it's happening and resulting in death.
    • Lines 31-32: By comparing emotional pain to sicknesses, the body translates the touchy-feely into stuff it already knows. At the same time, it underlines that every emotion—even joy and hope!—is painful and unwanted.
    • Line 33: Hope is compared to a cramp, a small nagging pain that grows the more you move that muscle. In the same way, hope has a tendency to grow the more you obsess over whatever you're hoping for.
    • Line 34: Fear is like a neurological disease because it's an overwhelming, systemic feeling. Think about the last time you read the actual ingredients in a packet of hot dogs and started shaking uncontrollably. Yep, that's fear.
    • Line 35: The body describes love as a pestilence, which means an aggressively infectious disease. Marvell was probably thinking of the plague—because nothing says love like swelling pus-filled buboes—but the metaphor holds for all diseases. Love makes you hot and cold, flushed and dizzy.
    • Line 36: It makes sense that hatred is compared to an ulcer, a sickness so hidden that it's often really hard to diagnose. Sure, some people are open about their enemies, but most of us like to keep that kind of gnawing, jealous dislike quiet.
  • Slavery/Torture

    If we take their word for it, living in a body or with a soul is like Libya under Gaddafi: autocratic, terrifying, and full of torture. The soul definitely has more to say in terms of physical confinement—it's trapped inside a body, after all, which makes the dungeon metaphors more relevant. But the body also relies on political rhetoric with its accusations that the soul is a dangerous tyrant. (Back up to "In a Nutshell" to read about how Marvell's personal patriotism might be responsible for the ample dose of political imagery in this poem.)

    • Lines 1-2: The soul uses imagery of slavery and confinement to pluck the heart-strings of its audience. With the body described as a dungeon and the soul compared to a slave, who couldn't feel sorry for this poor little prisoner?
    • Lines 3-4: The soul adds to this gruesome picture more concrete images of confinement. Now we get an HD view of how it's enslaved. And, folks, this is no abstract slavery. This soul is locked up, with chains on both feet and hands. (Not that a soul has feet or hands—it's just a metaphor, silly!)
    • Lines 7-8: Why not add a bit of torture? The soul compares its life in the body to being strung up in chains. 
    • Line 9: In case we didn't catch the torture imagery in lines 7-8, the soul makes it unmistakable in line 9. This life is nonstop agony.
    • Lines 11-12: Although the soul harps more on its physical confinement and agony, the body also goes in for some slavery imagery. Calling the soul a tyrant, it laments its status as a wretched, helpless servant, required to give in to the soul's demands.
  • Architecture

    Although it doesn't surface until the final two lines, architecture forms the poem's final image. The soul is the metaphorical architect in question, although a high-paying, prestigious, and widely-admired position this is not. The body makes it clear that the natural order, as opposed to whatever is civilized or built up, is superior. Green trees are happier than wooden fences and bodies without souls are happier than bodies with souls. Why? Because of the change in capacity, that's why. A tree is a tree but a fence can keep people out, block paths, and function as a symbol of hostility. In the same way, a body with a soul becomes capable of a whole range of new things, some good and a lot bad. By "building" a body with consciousness and a conscience, the soul sets it up to commit sin.

    • Lines 41-42: In this metaphor, the soul is a carpenter or architect, fashioning the body into a receptacle for bad thoughts, wicked desires, and sins galore.
    • Lines 43-44: Just as architects cut down trees and transform them into new, less-natural shapes, so the soul takes a body and warps it into a conscious, moral human being. And in a wicked world, with temptations around every corner, that is a seriously bad thing.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      There's a lot of body-talk in this dialogue, but this isn't eighth-grade health class. Marvell keeps it clean and philosophical instead of dirty and physical.