Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 28; 9 December 2021

Andrew Marvell, “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”

“Mine own precipice I go”

I’m sorry that this issue of the newsletter is a day late. Since last weekend, a perfect storm of circumstances (including an actual storm on Tuesday night as a result of which my internet connection was down for parts of the last two days) has distracted and impeded me from getting on with writing this. The next one will be as scheduled on 22 December and I’ll continue to send them out every second Wednesday after that, weather and internet connection permitting.)

Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) wrote several dialogue poems of which (to my mind at least) “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” is probably the most interesting. Even titling it a “dialogue” raises a question. The soul and the body take turns to speak and implicitly answer each other’s complaints, but the complaints and answers are addressed to a third party, perhaps an arbiter whose role is taken by the reader. As is normal for parties pleading a case, each tries to present the other party’s conduct in the worst possible light and make as few concessions as possible.

Since only the two parties speak, we don’t hear the final judgment, the conclusion. The soul starts off and they exchange 10-line stanzas, with the body getting an additional four lines at the end. The poem ends with the conflict (such as it is) unresolved. This, as far as I can tell, is unique among Marvell’s dialogue poems.

In “A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure”, the soul withstands the temptations offered by pleasure, and safely reaches its desired end. In “Clorinda and Damon” (which is not described as a dialogue in the title but is one in form), the young woman and the shepherd she wanted to seduce “in Pan’s praises meet” (l. 26). The couple in “Ametas and Thestylis Making Hay-Ropes” finally appear to have been in accord all along, the apparent differences between them merely a matter of verbal play. Even the shepherds in “A Dialogue between Thyrsis and Dorinda” end in agreement, if also in error, having resolved to drink poppies steeped in wine so that they will “smoothly pass away in sleep” (l. 48) and hasten their entry into Elysium.

The soul starts the dialogue by complaining that it is “inslaved” in the “dungeon” of the body, like a prisoner:

With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands (l. 3–4)

From its point of view the feet are themselves fetters and the hands manacles. The restraints are built in, inherent in the nature of the body parts themselves. Those parts, without which it would be impossible to move or to interact with the world, are themselves perceived as frustrating constraints on the very freedom that they enable. Similarly the eye blinds (by limiting what can be seen) and the ear deafens with its “drumming” (l. 6). Of course, the soul is not entirely wrong in this perception: the feet can only move one step at a time, and so long as the body is not too tired or too ill to go on. There is only so much the hands can grasp, and a limit to what they can do with whatever they have in their grip. But without them, the soul, assuming it could exist at all, couldn’t do, see or hear anything.

If the body is the soul’s “dungeon”, the soul is its “tyrannic” (l. 12) ruler

Which, stretched upright, impales me so,
That mine own precipice I go (ll. 13–14)

This is the first hint that body and soul are not so different — and not so opposed — as they would have the reader believe. Doesn’t “impales” sound physical? Surely, if there’s any impaling to be done, this is the realm of the material, physical side of the dichotomy, not of the spiritual or ethereal one? Yet, here it is the soul that’s alleged to impale the body. And, while impaling could be expected to hold the body upright, here it is the soul that is “stretched upright”: in impaling the body, it seems to have done exactly the same thing to itself. Perhaps what we’re seeing is the body’s imprecise translation of what it feels the soul to be doing into physical terms that make sense to it.

The next line has a vertiginous quality, partly as a result of the apparently compression of syntax and meaning. Has a preposition been omitted? I go “over” perhaps? That suggestion is inescapable, but it must equally be recognized that “I go” simply means “I walk”, a normal sense of “go” at the time. So, “I walk around, my own precipice”. But a precipice is something one is in danger of falling over, or off, so we can’t quite dismiss the image of the body falling over, or off, itself.

Next, the body compares its animation by the soul to “a fever” (l. 16) which “warms and moves this needless frame” (l. 15). There is a neat ambiguity in “needless”. The body clearly means to say that it has no needs or requirements, that it doesn’t want anything, least of all to be animated or possessed by an “ill spirit” (l. 20). But “needless” often means “unnecessary”, so the body unintentionally echoes the soul’s implied complaint that it (the body) is at best otiose.

In the next stanza, it’s the soul’s turn to blur, unwittingly, the distinction it has been trying to establish between itself and its physical counterpart. When the body gets ill or suffers physical injury

… whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain (ll. 23–4)

The soul feels pain, but it’s the body that complains. And yet, the soul “cannot feel”, or rather could not, were it not for the body. The soul longs to reach “the port”, with the death of the body, but because the latter “all my care itself employs” (l. 25), the former’s arrival in heaven is deferred and it is “shipwracked into health again” (l. 30). But what is it exactly that the body has been doing to frustrate its reluctant companion’s desire for the afterlife? According to the soul, the body

all my care itself employs,
That to preserve which me destroys:
Constrained not only to endure
Diseases, but what’s worse, the cure (ll. 25–28, emphasis added)

There can be no doubt that “all my care” is the object of “employs” — but what, in that case, is the reflexive pronoun “itself” doing there? Is this an example of Marvell short-circuiting the syntax to erase the distinction between two (supposedly) distinct objects? (I’ve written about the ways in which Marvell uses reflexivity in my thesis, passim, and in “Andrew Marvell’s gender”.)

And anyway, how is it that the body is able to employ all the soul’s care? How, that is, can it compel the soul to decide (presumably against its will and better judgment) to “endure … what’s worse, the cure”, unless they are connected and mutually sympathetic at a much deeper level than either is willing to admit? At this point in the poem, any notion that the two parties to the dialogue are separate entities with divergent interests (whatever about their desires) looks very unconvincing.

The body has the last word, in 14 lines, rather than one of the 10-line stanzas that have alternated between the two speakers till now. In the first 10, it excoriates “the maladies thou me dost teach” (l. 32): hope and fear, love and hatred, joy and sorrow, knowledge and (sometimes deficient) memory. The contradictions, this litany implies, are in the nature of life and reality themselves, and not in the apparent incompatibility between two aspects of the individual human being.

In the final four lines, the body acknowledges the soul’s “wit”, while complaining that it is misdirected, and compares it to an architect who partly destroys forests in order to build:

What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew (ll. 41–4)

This last couplet reflects an idea that Marvell was to return to several times: see the note to lines 43–4 in Smith, p. 64. It will be seen in these examples that he often uses “hew” as a term of disapproval. In this instance, though, it’s balanced with “square”, which carries an implication of order and shape. In the passage that Smith quotes from An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England (1677), he clearly uses “squaring” with approval, and contrasts it with hewing: “instead of squaring their Governments by the Rule of Christianity … have always been hacking and hewing one another …”

Again, not all architecture is to be deplored. Nunappleton House, “this sober frame”, exhibits “Work of no foreign architect, | That … forests did to pastures hew”, but it was built, and to the “dimensions” of a “more sober age and mind” (ll. 27–8). In short, to “square and hew” is not unequivocally a bad thing, but a risky task that could go either way. It’s one that needs to be viewed with judgment and caution.

In the end, the lack of resolution of the conflict is itself the resolution. Marvell appears to be fond of the idea that strength is to be found in opposition, diversity and divergence. The strongest, most memorable stanza in “Ametas and Thestylis Making Hay-Ropes” is Thestylis’s first answer to Ametas’s opening gambit:

Think’st thou that this rope would twine
If we both should turn one way?
Where both parties so combine,
Neither love will twist nor hay (ll. 5–8)

As similar idea is to be found in “The First Anniversary of the Government under His Highness the Lord Protector”, where Cromwell is trying to build a new polity from the disparate and quarreling elements in the Commonwealth:

The crossest spirits here do take their part,
Fast’ning the contignation which they thwart;
And they, whose nature leads them to divide,
Uphold, this one, and that the other side (ll. 89–92)

So, while it may be unavoidable that the soul and body distrust and complain about each other, ultimately they have to recognize that without the other neither could even exist, never mind accomplish anything. They are not separable, internally divided or barely compatible parts of the individual human being, but integral and wholly interdependent elements of the whole.


I’ve quoted the poem from Nigel Smith’s The Poems of Andrew Marvell (first edition, 2003). “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” can also be read online at The Poetry Foundation.

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 09-Dec-2021.