A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body by Andrew Marvell Poem Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


English poet Andrew Marvell wrote this metaphysical poem titled “A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body” in the 17th century. Marvell is renowned for his intricate and imaginative writing style, frequently delving into difficult philosophical and metaphysical concepts. In this specific poem, Marvell explores the conflict between the spiritual and physical aspects of human existence through an interaction between the soul and the body. The poem poses difficult questions regarding the nature of the soul, the physical limitations, and the conflicts between materialistic desires and greater ambitions.

About the poet

Andrew Marvell was an English metaphysical poet, satirist, and politician who served in the House of Commons from 1659 and 1678. He worked alongside John Milton and was friends with him during the Commonwealth era. He wrote a variety of poems, including the love song “To His Coy Mistress,” descriptions of an aristocratic country house and garden in “Upon Appleton House” and “The Garden,” a political address called “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” and later political and personal satires called “Flecknoe” and “The Character of Holland.”


Stanza 1

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.


In these lines, the speaker, who is considered to be the soul, laments the many physical restrictions and limits that the body imposes. The soul is described as being imprisoned, constrained by its sense organs, and bound by bones. It feels tortured inside the boundaries of the body and is unable to completely experience the environment.


The poem examines the conflict between the physical and spiritual sides of life, posing challenging issues regarding the nature of the soul, the limitations of the body, and the difficulties in bridging the two. The metaphorical representation of the body as a prison composed of bones, nerves, arteries, and veins emphasizes the physiological foundation of the body’s restrictions while the imagery of a dungeon implies a sensation of confinement and captivity. The opposing metaphors of being blind with an eye and deaf with an ear highlight the soul’s dissatisfaction and sense of alienation.

Stanza 2

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.


The speaker, representing the body, communicates its own hardships and trials in these lines. The soul is said to govern and oppress the body, causing it to be restless and in a never-ending struggle. The body suffers and exists in a condition of discomfort and anxiety because it is vulnerable to the whims and actions of the soul.


These lines address the tension that exists between a person’s physical and spiritual aspects, with the body seeing itself as a victim of the soul’s oppression. The metaphor of being “stretch’d upright” and impaled by the soul conveys the idea of being forcibly restrained and controlled. The idea that the body is warmed and moved by the soul in a way similar to a fever emphasizes the body’s unconscious and submissive nature. The phrase “let me die” suggests that the body is prone to the whims and intentions of the soul, which might leave one feeling hopeless and despair. These lines support the poem’s overall issue, which examines the tension between the spiritual and physical aspects of the human experience. They give richness to the exploration of the themes of power, control, and the intricacies of the soul-body relationship since they represent the body’s viewpoint on its submission to the soul’s authority.

Stanza 3

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.


In these lines, the speaker, a metaphor for the soul, reflects on its imprisonment within another person’s sorrow and pain. Although the soul is empathetic and feels other people’s suffering, it is powerless to do anything to reduce it. Instead, it is responsible for keeping the body alive, even if it means putting up with illnesses and making unsuccessful attempts to recover.


These lines address the complicated bond that exists between the soul and the body, highlighting the role that the soul plays as an act of service and its commitment to upholding the body’s well-being and existence. The soul expresses a feeling of being imprisoned in another person’s grief, sensing pain that it cannot really feel but is aware of because of its connection to the body. It laments the continuing existence of illnesses and the difficulty of finding a remedy since it is committed to protecting the body even at the expense of its own demise. The hardships and problems the soul faces while navigating the physical world and fulfilling its obligations to the body are made clear from the viewpoint of the soul.

Stanza 4

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.


In these lines, the speaker, who is the body, acknowledges the numerous afflictions and emotions it goes through. The body speaks of the various afflictions it experiences, such as the cramp of hope, the chills of fear, the heat of love, the ulcer of hatred, the confusion of joy, and the vexation of sorrow. The body claims that the soul’s understanding is to blame for these problems, implying that the soul designed the body to be susceptible to sin and its consequences.


The lines highlight the part the soul plays in creating or maintaining these conditions. The cramp of hope, the palsy shakes of fear, the sickness of love, the ulcer of hatred, joy’s madness, and sorrow’s madness are only a few examples of the physical and emotional afflictions mentioned in the poem. The body admits that the soul forced it to become aware of these conditions and their consequences, indicating that the soul purposefully created the body to be open to such experiences. The poem ends by making a reference to architects hewing and squaring green trees, implying that the soul has controlled and shaped the body to be vulnerable to sin and its consequences.