A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body Summary
Like a presidential debate, this dialogue is a hostile, mud-slinging, pull-no-punches argument between two very upset beings: the soul and the body. Although they're both unhappy about the same thing (being alive together), they express themselves in different ways. The soul is unhappy about the physical pain of being inside a body, forced to live next door to arteries and livers and to feel every ache and pain. What it really wants is the body's death. That way the soul can return to heaven and live happily (and dis-embodied-ly) forever.
The body, on the other hand, can't live forever and escape to heaven, and for that reason it hates the soul for giving it life in the first place. Walking around upright is bad enough, but the worst part about having a soul is the emotional pain. The body doesn't want to feel happy or sad, and it especially doesn't want to have the moral capacity to commit sin.
There's no clear winner in this debate, although the body does get the final word (and an extra 4 lines). And who's happy by the end? Nobody (and no soul, too). Hey, it's just like at a presidential debate.
O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav'd so many ways?
- The soul gets the first word, and it wastes no time getting its complaint out there. It's trapped and it wants out. Using a metaphor to call its body a "dungeon," the soul complains that it's "enslav'd." Sounds like bad times.
- Even though this poem's called a "dialogue," you'll notice that the soul isn't addressing the body directly. Formed as a rhetorical question, these lines are a plea for help but with no real expectation that help is on the way. The soul doesn't say, "Hey, get me out of here!" Instead, it takes the damsel-in-distress line, wondering aloud, "Who, O who will come to my aid?"
- Feeling stressed? It's not just the soul's dire mood—this whole poem's got stress, iambic tetrameter, to be exact. Get yourself down to "Form and Meter" for the skinny.
With bolts of bones, that fetter'd stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
- Back in line 2, the soul was carping about the "many ways" it's enslaved, and now we get the first descriptions. For starters, the body's bones are called "bolts," a metaphor that makes the skeleton seem like a prison.
- The jailbird theme continues with some head-scratching paradoxes: the soul is "fetter'd" (or restricted) by having feet and "manacled" (in manacles, or handcuffs) by having hands. Most people would be like, "Yes, I have feet and they let me walk down the street to my favorite cafe," but the soul is not interested in picking stuff up or dancing. It just wants to be a soul, okay, and do soul things. Any body part, however useful, is just part of the dungeon.
- Check out the double-whammy of alliteration (the B sounds) and assonance (the long O sounds) in "bolts of bones." This soul knows how to hammer it home. Keep an eye peeled for more examples throughout the poem and, for the down and dirty on soul-and-body-style, head to "Sound Check."
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
- Whip out those binoculars, 'cause it's paradox-spotting time. After hitting us with handcuffs and chains in lines 3-4, the soul gets two more in, claiming that it's blind because it has eyes and deaf because it has ears. Huh?
- If this sounds kinda counterintuitive, don't worry—it's supposed to be. The soul is trying to startle us out of our bodily assumptions, like thinking that eyes help us see and ears help us hear. The point is to change our perspective so we see the soul's side of things. Because it doesn't need ears or eyes to function, they're just nuisances—in fact, for the soul they do exactly the opposite of what they do for the body.
- Did someone say pun? "Drumming" here refers in general to all the sounds taken in by the ear, but it's also a pun on "eardrum." Get it? Boy, that Marvell: what a barrel of laughs.
- Before you leave, admire the eye rhyme of "deaf" and "ear," which gives a cute balance to the line.
A soul hung up, as 'twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
- Let me count the ways… The soul's still nattering on about its slavery and let's face it: the imagery is pretty intense. We've had prison; now we're moving on to torture, with the soul describing itself as strung up in chains, the way a prisoner might have been treated in seventeenth-century jail.
- But spoiler alert: these chains aren't actually long links of iron. Line 7 ends creepily on "chains," but the "as 'twere" embedded in the middle has already given the heads up that we're drifting into simile territory.
- Bam! Line 8 brings it back to the body. The soul is strung up in the body's natural chains, all those ropy things that pump blood and pass signals from your brain. For the body, these guys are life-essential; for the crotchety soul, however, they're instruments of torture. Eesh.
Tortur'd, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart.
- Line 9 comes right out and says it: this crap constitutes torture. In addition to the bones that restrict movement, the eyes and ears that dull the soul's senses, and the body's tormenting communication networks, the soul has to deal with vanity and duplicity. The "vain head" suggests (by using a rare, but cool, technique known as synecdoche) that the brain's intelligence is shallow and arrogant, while the "double heart" is a metaphor that hints at emotional deception and disloyalty.
- Up till now the soul's been on a physical body rant, complaining about bones and ears and nerves. This is the first sign that the soul's on the outs with the mind as well. We're moving from physical to metaphysical, folks.
- But wait a gosh-darned second! What is a soul anyway, if it's not the mind or the heart-conscience? Is our soul losing its marbles here? Did it forget who it is? Figuring out what the seventeenth-century soul is can be a trying business. Head back up to "In a Nutshell" for more info on just what = soul and what = body.
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
- Now that the body gets its say, it totally blows it in terms of originality. Lines 11-12 are basically a "I know you are but what am I?" situation. The soul posed a rhetorical question, asking whether anyone could emancipate it from the body. Now the body copycats but switches the blame. It wants to know who can free it from the tyranny of the soul.
- Where the soul claimed prison and torture (in other words, physical problems and pains), the body's all about spiritual tyranny. "Bonds" can mean both physical and immaterial restraints, but "tyrannic" shifts the emphasis to the immaterial. This soul is an evil dictator!
- Check out the cute visual echo of "who" and "whole," which underscores that the "who"—whoever it is—is the only ticket to the body's whole escape.
Which, stretch'd upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
- Stretched out like an unfilled piecrust, the soul fills and animates the body, in this description literally forcing it upright.
- Being upright might sound like a sweet deal, especially when it comes to getting that box of Oreos off high shelves, but the body's got a different idea. This uprightness is both painful ("impales") and scary: the soul makes the body so tall and unbalanced that it's like being a really scary cliff. And you know what's really scary about cliffs? You can fall off them.
- Although the verb "impale" sounds like an iron spike going through someone's stomach, the body probably has a more benign sense in mind. You know how if your plants are drooping from their own weight you can prop them up with a few stakes?
- Well, soul, you are the stake that props up the body. Only the body doesn't want that, so nobody wins.
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
- Once the body has slammed the soul for keeping it upright, it moves on to another puzzling complaint: the soul keeps it warm and mobile, everything operating at 98.6 degrees.
- But before the soul can pat itself on the back, the body comes out with a zinger in parentheses. Sure, the soul may keep things nice and hot but no biggie, folks—a fever does the same thing and no one wants that.
- The double meaning of "needless" underscores the body's point, but in two separate ways. If "needless" refers to the warmth and mobility provided by the soul—as in, the body doesn't need the soul to warm and move it—then cold-burn: this body is self-sufficient.
- But if "needless" actually refers to the "frame" or body itself, and means something more like "unnecessary," then the body's going in a whole other direction. By calling itself worthless, the body implies that the soul is too. In other words, since this physical body is useless, there's no point in keeping it alive—yet another, but different, cold-burn.
- Is it possible that the body is using its seriously low self-esteem to stick it to the soul? Let's read further, gentle friend, and find out.
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
- The soul's still the subject here (that "its" is its "its," if you know what we mean). But watch out. The soul is not the only thing around here getting down with paradox. The body accuses the soul of brimming over with spite, but lacking a place to exercise it—"wanting" here basically means "lacking."
- So where does the soul turn to vent its temper? The body. And here's where the paradox comes in. The soul brings the body to life, but that is so not a good thing. For one thing, the body is mortal, which means that, even though the soul animates it for seventy-odd years, eventually it's going to bite the dust.
- Plus, since the soul is immortal, the body feels like life, however long, is a pretty raw deal. Sure, it's annoying for the soul too (see the "Stanza 1" Detailed Summary), but at least it can look forward to a body-less heaven. The body gets nothing out of this arrangement but a painful life and an obliterating death.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest.
- With life comes movement. Ever since the soul dragged the body into life, it hasn't been able to chill out for a single moment.
- Plus, it's always Halloween for this skeleton, and not in a good way. By calling the soul an "ill spirit," the body casts doubt on the spirituality of the soul and associates it instead with the no-good supernatural. Like a restless ghost, this soul makes the body pace up and down the earth when all it wants is to be left alone.
- Get a load of that short I lineup in this couplet: "since," "this," "ill," "spirit," "it." Kinda makes you wince, right? (See what we did there?) Head to "Sound Check" for more on all the assonance in this poem.
What magic could me thus confine
Within another's grief to pine?
- The soul's got the mic back now, and its mood is 100 percent unimproved. Still addressing some unknown other, it wonders what kind of supernatural force has the power to keep it inside this body, feeling all its pains.
- Notice that the soul says "magic" and not something more expected, like "God" or "heavenly decree." Souls pal around with God, right? And hasn't the soul been hinting all along at getting back to heaven?
- "Magic" is a pejorative (negative) word here, a deliberately rude way of referring to the soul's relationship with the body. This soul may hang with the celestial harps, but it's sure as heck not going to dignify the body with any of that religion. That would mean everything was on purpose!
- Plus, this may be a subtle verbal payback for line 20, where the body called the soul an "ill spirit." If the body thinks this is all a terrible spook-show, then the soul's going to play along.
Where whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
- In the first stanza, the soul was all upset about the actual fact of being inside a body, tangled up in anatomical structures. Here it's zeroing in on some genuinely unpleasant stuff: it has to feel the body's physical pain, no matter when or where.
- What really cheeses this soul off is the fact that by itself it can't feel anything. That's right: no aches, no cramps, no middle-of-the-game pulled muscles. It's only when it's trapped inside the body that the soul's forced to become conscious of these pains.
- That's what makes the paradox of line 24: the soul can't feel (on its own), but in the body it can feel.
And all my care itself employs;
That to preserve which me destroys;
- Get a load of this body's wiliness: the body mooches off the soul—its consciousness, its judgment, etc.—to keep itself healthy.
- It's kind of like the placebo effect. As long as you think this pill (that is actually a Jolly Rancher) is genuine medicine, you can actually get better. To the soul, that's just plain unfair.
- And as you might expect, the soul spits out a bitter paradox about this, noting that the body preserves itself by destroying the soul. How's that? Remember, this soul-dude wants out—once the body dies, it's gonna peace out. The longer the body draws upon the soul's consciousness to stay in good shape, the longer the poor soul has to put up with being trapped down on Earth.
- To put in another way: good health = unhappy soul.
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.
- Like a stuck record, the soul stays on this theme for the next few lines, spreading the paradox and metaphor on like garlic paste on bread. Only garlic bread makes people happy and the soul, as per usual, is anything but.
- Not only does it suffer through diseases; it also has to endure the cures. In other words, it experiences all the discomfort of a fever and then the disappointment of feeling Tylenol PM narrow its chances of death-escape back down to zero. Buh-mmer.
- Did you pick up on that nice W alliteration in "what's worse"? Yeah, well the soul wanted you to—anything to get your attention, and your sympathy.
- To drive home the point, the soul hits us with a neat little paradoxical metaphor: the soul is a ship that's been sailing the deep blue for several years, buffeted by titanic waves, trudging through windless sea-deserts. (Think Holland America on steroids.)
- But here's the bad part. Whenever a port is in sight, a sudden storm sweeps the ship back into the sea.
- With its metaphor-clothes off, the sentence looks like this: whenever the body is teetering on the edge of death and the soul's poised to fly away, the healing process kicks in, the body gets well, and the soul is forced back into its life of captivity and pain.
But physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach;
- The body wrestles the mic back—after all, it's got arms, right?—and rebuts the soul on the same subject: sickness. But something's changed. The body has turned on the soul directly. Just look at that accusing "thou" planted in the middle of line 32 like a punch in the chops.
- And the body doesn't stop there. After kicking up the tone with some second-person aggression, it ratchets up the subject to a whole new level. The soul may carp about feeling sick and then getting well again, but the body endures pains that no medicine can even touch.
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
- The soul introduces the body to a range of incurable emotional pain which the body catalogs in this stanza, using metaphors of physical pain. That's no surprise there since it's a body after all. Use what you know, folks.
- Although they're grouped in pairs of "good" and "bad" feelings, this stuff is across-the-board bad to live with.
- First off we've got hope, compared to a cramp, and fear, which is like the uncontrollable shaking of a nervous system disorder.
- Notice how the metaphor fits the feeling: hope nestles inside you like a cramping muscle while fear affects your whole body, literally making you shake.
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred's hidden ulcer eat;
Joy's cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow's other madness vex;
- In the same way, it makes sense that love is a pestilence, some kind of aggressively infectious disease like the plague. Anyone who's ever had a Bella-on-Edward-style crush will know that love is definitely a full-body condition, delivering heat and plenty of it.
- Hatred, on the other hand, is a hidden illness, nursed in secret like a stomach ulcer. It gnaws at us in the same way.
- And check out the attention-getting alliteration of "hatred's hidden." More on that in "Sound Check."
- The final positive-negative pair is joy and sorrow. Both are compared to "madness," which for Marvell meant "craziness" or "mental illness," not anger.
- Joy's actually not so bad, although the mental giddiness it produces can be confusing and distracting. That's why happy people tend to be goggle-eyed ditzes. (No offense, all you smilies out there.)
- Sorrow's madness is at the other end of the spectrum: destructive and consuming, it drives us into depression.
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego.
- All this knowledge—joy and sorrow, fear and hope—is forced on the body by the soul. And that isn't all. Not only does the body have to feel these things in the moment they happen. It also has to remember them.
- By encoding them in memories, the soul ensures that the body will remember sorrow and fear, even when the bad guys are long gone or a new pet cat has replaced the run-away. Crafty, right?
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
- Lines 41-44 mark the body's extra speech time. This match has officially gone into overtime, ladies and gentlemen. The body's got the ball, and it's kicking things up one last time.
- Everyone's been cranky in this poem, but here the body offers up a more somber, way more serious complaint than anything that's gone before: nothing but a soul would be clever and malicious enough to make the body commit sin.
- So how did we get from "joy's cheerful madness" to "the soul made me kill that man"? Well, by giving the body consciousness, emotion, and a sense of morality, the soul groomed the body to make mistakes and fall into wickedness. If you're being eaten alive by hatred's "hidden ulcer," then it's not such a stretch to start doing bad things to the people you hate.
- Sad but true.
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.
- The body illustrates its final point with an interesting metaphor. Architects cut down trees and carve them into more civilized shapes, like chairs and sheds and stairs and beds (sometimes the architects are poets too).
- In the same way, the soul captures the body in its state of natural ignorance and makes it human.
- Being human comes with a lot of mental baggage: we're talking emotions, morality, and the consciousness that you exist in a vast universe. All that baggage means that humans are capable of feeling hurt and getting angry, of knowing what is evil and then doing it anyway, and then being tortured with religious convictions that human sin will be punished. No wonder the body just wants to be a body!
- In a final sonic flare, the assonant E's of "green trees" emphasize the importance of the body's last argument.