Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Marvell and Mortalism

A supplementary note to my essay on “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”

The subject of the most recent issue of my newsletter, “Talk about books”, is Andrew Marvell’s 44-line lyric poem, “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”. The poem shows the two parties to the dialogue in apparent opposition to each other: each complains that the other makes its existence unbearable. If they’re telling the truth, their coexistence would be virtually impossible. I argue that, on the contrary, their dispute shows how interdependent — and in some respects how indistinguishable — they are.

My original plan for the piece was to attempt to relate Marvell’s dialogue to the doctrine of Mortalism. Mortalism was the belief that the soul could not survive the death of the body, but that both lived and died together. They were not, in other words, distinct or separable parts of the human being but really no more than different ways of apprehending different aspects of that being.

This doctrine was rejected and proscribed by such very different figures and bodies as Jean Calvin (McDowell, p. 570), Pope Leo X (p. 566) and the English Parliament in 1648 (p. 572). Several of the main churches of the time considered it heretical. Yet, as Nicholas McDowell shows, it was really no more than mildly heterodox in its implications. It didn’t prevent its adherents from believing in the Resurrection: but that would not be the resurrection of the body alone, but of body and soul together. The soul would not be alive during the interval between the death of the body and the Last Judgment. According to this belief, there are at present no humans in hell, but that is not a state of affairs that will persist beyond the Day of Judgment.

Note: McDowellNicholas McDowell, “Dead Souls and Modern Minds? Mortalism and the early modern imagination, from Marlowe to Milton, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 40(3), 559–592.

Mortalism was one of several heretical or unorthodox beliefs held by Marvell’s friend John Milton. (Milton was also an Arian who believed that Jesus was not coeternal or of one being with God the Father, and an Arminian, maintaining that humans have free will to accept or reject God’s grace.) In my essay on William Empson’s poetry, I cite the passage on Mortalism from Milton’s God (revised edition, 1965, pp. 201–2) and conclude:

Milton may have believed that the majority of human beings are destined to suffer never-ending punishment, but at least he did not see us as irresolvably contradictory creatures whose two incompatible parts are forever in conflict.

If my reading of “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” is right, one might say that neither does that poem see us as irresolvably contradictory creatures whose two incompatible parts are forever in conflict. So, does that make Marvell a mortalist?

I doubt very much if that question can reliably be answered: when it comes to religion, we don’t know for sure what Marvell believed. He was cautious and reserved on the subject and, as someone who was sharply conscious of the fact that he had enemies, he had reason to be circumspect. I’ve touched on certain aspects of his religious belief in “Religion and divine justice in the work of Andrew Marvell”, and I don’t expect to have anything to add in the future to what I wrote there. (Nicholas von Maltzahn’s “Milton, Marvell and Toleration” is very good on the subject.)

Note: von Maltzahn Nicholas von Maltzahn, “Milton, Marvell and Toleration”, in Sharon Achinstein and Elizabeth Sauer, eds. Milton and Toleration, (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 86–104, especially at pp. 92–6).

While writing about Marvell’s “Dialogue” for my newsletter, I came to understand that I don’t want to treat the poem as historical evidence for Marvell’s adherence to or dissent from this or that doctrine. Rather, I was trying to arrive at as good — accurate, persuasive — a reading of the poem as I was able to. To me, that’s not a scholarly historical exercise but rather a critical one.

I long ago accepted (having resisted at first) that scholarly historical work is both necessary and much more valuable than the kind of critical, interpretive approach that I prefer. But that’s not to say that the criticism and interpretation are completely without value. I delayed writing about “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” because I thought I could so so only if I managed to situate it in the context of seventeenth century English Christian belief in general, and Marvell’s in particular.

In the end, I realized that, if I were going to write about it at all, it would have to be simply as a poem, not as a historical document or piece of evidence. At the same time, I didn’t want to obscure the fact that reading the poem had led me to speculate as to what Marvell believed about the (im)mortality of the soul. I thought it better to make this clear in a note separate from the essay itself.

Posted by Art, 18-Dec-2021.