Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was born in Hull in 1621 where his father, Reverend Andrew Marvell, was a lecturer at Holy Trinity College. After completing his degree at Trinity College Cambridge, Marvell’s father died and he abandoned his plans for further study. Instead, Marvell travelled Europe during the 1640’s, acquiring the languages of Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian in addition to Latin and Greek. He worked as a tutor, and held office in Cromwell’s government; using his political status to free John Milton who was jailed during the restoration. His close proximity to government life presented him with a wealth of material inspiring him to write poetry and prose critiquing and satirising both court and parliament.
Marvell presents A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body in an unusual form, although this ‘dialogue’ technique is incorporated into many of his other poems. In the poem, the soul is ‘tyrannic’, whilst the body is a ‘dungeon’, both forcing the other to endure unnecessary suffering that they would otherwise be unaware of had it not been for the existence of the other: ‘But Physic yet could never reach / The maladies thou me dost teach’. Marvell presents them both as being imprisoned and ‘possessed’ by the other: the body is only conscious of sin because of the soul; ‘what but a soul could have the wit / to build me up for sin so fit?’, who must in turn endure physical pain because of the body; ‘who made me live to let me die’. The closing argument of the poem is given to the body, perplexed by the feelings of ‘hope’, ‘fear’, ‘love’, ‘hatred’ which ‘Knowledge forces me to know / And memory will not forego’. The final couplet: ‘So architects do square and hew / Green trees that in the forest grew’ perfectly emphasise the main message of the poem: though both soul and body find it impossible to live with their confinement, it is also inevitable that they must realise and accept their fate.
A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body
O, WHO shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart?
O, who shall me deliver whole,
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same),
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possessed.
What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine ?
Where, whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain ;
And all my care itself employs,
That to preserve which me destroys ;
Constrained not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure ;
And, ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwrecked into health again.
But Physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach ;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear ;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat ;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex ;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego ;
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.
Andrew Marvell: 1681