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Andrew Marvell, “A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body”
O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d 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;
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart.
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d 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 possest.
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;
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.
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.

This extraordinary poem is by Andrew Marvell, who—along with writers like John Donne, Henry Vaughan, and George Herbert—is one of the “metaphysical poets,” who explored spiritual themes with often very earthy imagery.
Marvell was born in 1621. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and there is a story, which has never been proved or disproved, that he ran away to become a Catholic—and a Jesuit priest! Be that as it may, Marvell’s father followed him to London and brought him home again. Marvell became a convinced Puritan, and in later life published many satires in which the royal family—and the Catholic Church—do not come off very well. He also wrote poetry. Marvell’s most quoted poem is “To His Coy Mistress”: “Had we but world enough, and time….”
“A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body” is a fascinating poem in which Marvell’s use of language is on full display. This is a dualistic view of the human person, to say the least. The soul is imprisoned in the body—“bolts of bones,” “fettered in feet,” “manacled in hands,” and is prevented from real perception by the limitations of the body:  “blinded with an eye,” “deaf with the drumming of an ear.” For the soul, the body is an alien environment - a prison.
The body speaks next, and has a similar feeling of being trapped—this time, in the bonds of a tyrant. It is the soul that makes the body restless, and possesses the body like an “ill spirit.” The spirit gives life, but only to take it away: spitefully, the soul “has made me live to let me die.” The Body seems to be saying that the Soul puts the Body in constant danger – making the Body its own “precipice”—liable to fall at any moment.
These opposite forces are stuck together. The Soul laments that every pain the body feels, the Soul must suffer as well—and even worse than the disease is the cure. Death would bring release, but, “ready oft the port to gain / Am shipwreck’d into health again.” And meanwhile the Body feels the same, suffering agonies from hate and love, hope and fear, joy and sadness—which are merely “madness” and the “other madness.” “What but a soul could have the wit / To build me up for sin so fit?” If the body fails (says the Body) it is because the Soul makes it inevitable.
I think one of the most extraordinary things about this poem is the ending: the Body says, “So architects do square and hew / Green trees that in the forest grew.” We do not get the tidy ending we might expect, with the triumph of the Soul. Instead, the Body gets the last word. The Body is like a tree that grew in the forest, but has been reshaped by an architect into something else. This ambiguous ending is perhaps not what we would expect from a Puritan.
Today, we try not to look at our being so dualistically. We know we are embodied creatures, body and soul together. And yet, in this season of Lent, we acknowledge the tension that Marvell so brilliantly captures in this poem. We begin Lent with ashes, that remind us that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Through the Lenten disciplines of fasting and abstinence, we strive to get the better of our earthly desires—to let the Soul prevail, rather than the Body.  As we pray in one of the Collects of the Lenten season, may “those who by self-denial are restrained in body… be renewed in mind.” The dialogue between the Soul and the Body goes on in each one of us.




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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