Study Guide

A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body Quotes

  • Suffering

    Here blinded with an eye, and there
    Deaf with the drumming of an ear; (5-6)

    O, O, O, woe is the soul! For something so spiritual and refined, it's torture to endure the assault of the world through physical senses. Having eyes is like being blinded and hearing things is like being deaf.

    Which, stretch'd upright, impales me so
    That mine own precipice I go; (13-14)

    The body has a weirder complaint to make. Having a soul forces it upright and if the verb "impales" is any guide, apparently that's no picnic. It turns the body into its own cliff, always worried about toppling over.

    Where whatsoever it complain,
    I feel, that cannot feel, the pain; (23-24)

    For all its emotional sensitivity, the soul is nerveless when it comes to physical pain. But stuck inside the body, it's forced to convert all those nerve signals into conscious emotional experiences, like terror, boredom, and general wretchedness.

    Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
    And then the palsy shakes of fear; (33-34)

    The body has the opposite complaint. Physical pains it can deal with—it's the emotional pains that strike terror into its bones. The problem is, there's no cure for feelings like futile hope and despairing love. You can't Advil that stuff up and expect to zonk out in blissful non-awareness in thirty minutes. You have to find other solutions, like a new love interest or a new career.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    And warms and moves this needless frame,
    (A fever could but do the same) (15-16)

    The body's ambivalence about living really comes out here. It calls itself purposeless and compares the experience of being alive to having a fever—not exactly reveling in the day-to-day.

    And, wanting where its spite to try,
    Has made me live to let me die. (17-18)

    The body sums up why it hates the soul. With nothing else to torture, the soul decided to use its own body to do its worst: bring it to life. But hey, isn't that better than never existing at all? Not according to the body, it isn't. Its conclusion is that there's no point to living if you're only going to die.

    A body that could never rest,
    Since this ill spirit it possest. (19-20)

    One of the worst things about being alive is always being on the move. Take a chill pill already! Remember from stanza one that the soul was venting about being confined and imprisoned: it wanted more movement. Here the body is complaining about exactly the opposite.

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

    Here's what realllly bugs the soul: the body's instinct for survival. It uses everything it has—its immune system, its ability to walk to the pharmacy to get medicine, its capacity for hope—to fight off death. This is exactly what the soul does not want. What could be more annoying than watching your sworn enemy use your own skills against you? Hello? I'm the reason you can even feel hope.

    Constrain'd not only to endure
    Diseases, but, what's worse, the cure; (27-28)

    Not only does the soul have to suffer through the body's diseases, forced to translate physical symptoms into conscious thoughts like, "Ugh, I want to puke"; it also has to endure being cured, knowing that death would set it free.

    And ready oft the port to gain,
    Am shipwreck'd into health again. (29-30)

    The soul's longing for death sets up this perfect paradox at the end of stanza three: just as it's about to bump up against the dock of death, the body sinks it back into life.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
    A soul enslav'd so many ways? (1-2)

    For the soul, life is like an unending D&D session. It's trapped in a dungeon and forced to move and sense and operate according to the whims of this hulking skeleton.

    With bolts of bones, that fetter'd stands
    In feet, and manacled in hands; (3-4)

    The main image here is of a soul completely immobilized inside its body. Like a criminal, its freedom is compromised with a material prison: handcuffs, manacles, and bone-rods.


    A soul hung up, as 'twere, in chains
    Of nerves, and arteries, and veins; (7-8)

    But if you thought being cuffed up was bad, get a load of what else this soul endures. By describing itself as "hung up" in chains of nerves and veins, the soul deliberately compares itself to a torture victim. The take-home here is: get me outta here!

    O who shall me deliver whole
    From bonds of this tyrannic soul? (11-12)

    The soul complains more about its lack of freedom, but the body gets a little political rhetoric of its own in at the beginning of its first stanza. Plus, the soul was a little more coy about everything, complaining through metaphor and paradox about all the sad bodily stuff it endures. The body, on the other hand, comes right out and says it: the soul is a tyrant and it's keeping me in slavery.

    What magic could me thus confine
    Within another's grief to pine? (21-22)

    It's interesting that the soul talks about "magic" instead of God or some other religious force. Maybe it's so disgusted with the reality of interacting with a body—pain! flu! sweat!—that it can't imagine anything spiritual locking it up in this madhouse. It must be some kind of sorcery.

    Constrain'd not only to endure
    Diseases, but, what's worse, the cure (27-28)

    And there's a touch of irony for ya. Because the soul would be happier without the body, it's not so secretly hoping for the grim reaper to come knocking. That's why diseases are bad but cures are worse: this opinionated amorphous blob can only get its freedom through death.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    But physic yet could never reach
    The maladies thou me dost teach; (31-32)

    The body makes no bones (get it?) about this emotional knowledge: it's bad and painful. By comparing it to diseases—and incurable ones at that—the body pathologizes emotions. In other words, it defines feeling as not normal and never good.

    Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
    And then the palsy shakes of fear; (33-34)

    This is the body's first pairing of good emotion and bad emotion. But notice that there's no difference in opinion. The body feels exactly the same about hope as it does about fear: they both feel bad. What's up with that? Can the body really not tell the difference? Or do all emotions end up feeling the same way?

    The pestilence of love does heat,
    Or hatred's hidden ulcer eat; (35-36)

    The body's obviously put some time into thinking up appropriate metaphors that really capture the qualities of these emotions. It compares love to a "pestilence," which means some super-aggressive contagious disease (see: plague). And when you're in love, it sometimes does feel as if passionate crush-obsession is taking over your mind like some kind of monster rash. Hatred, on the other hand, eats away at you secretly, like a stomach ulcer, amirite?

    Joy's cheerful madness does perplex,
    Or sorrow's other madness vex; (37-38)

    Joy and sorrow are described as twin crazies, one making us so happy it's kinda weird and the other making us so sad it's really annoying.

    Which knowledge forces me to know,
    And memory will not forego (39-40)

    The "which" here is a relative pronoun or stand-in for all the complaints the body's just listed: the madness, the ulcers, the love-pestilence, the cramps, and the shaking. The emotional knowledge provided by the soul forces the body to experience all this stuff, while the memory (also operated by the soul) makes sure the body can't forget it.

    What but a soul could have the wit
    To build me up for sin so fit? (41-42)

    Soul, you better hide yourself. The body's been pretty peeved throughout this stanza, but in the final four lines, the tone becomes quietly devastating, full of these scary accusations. "Who but a soul" heaps contempt on that spiritual powerhouse, implying that only something as tyrannical and malicious as a soul could come up with anything this mean. By teaching the body about emotion and feeling, the soul opened it up to the possibility of sin. And that's a serious bummer.

    So architects do square and hew
    Green trees that in the forest grew (43-44)

    Here the body compares itself to a young tree that would have grown peacefully in the forest, producing acorns, providing a home for squirrels, living the forest life. Add a soul to this innocent story, however, and the future takes a sorry turn. Instead of flourishing naturally, the tree is shaped and trimmed into a box or a gazebo, forced into being something it doesn't want to be. The underlying point here is that without a soul a body would be more natural, like an animal, free of civilization and all its evils.