This poem addresses the dichotomy between a person’s Body and Soul, using strong, elegant rhetoric and vivid imagery. Soul and Body are portrayed in a state of mutual entrapment, both being subject to each other’s whims and needs. Marvell alters the conventional structure for poems dealing with this dichotomy by giving the final lines to the body, rather than the soul. The ambiguity in these lines ensures we are left without a clear sense of a victory for one side or the other.
The Soul’s incredibly visceral, visual self-portrait as a tortured prisoner in Stanza 1 provides an affecting introduction to its argument. The idea of the Soul strung out, ‘manacled in hands’ and ‘fettered’ by feet, is made even more stirring by sound effects in the line. The alliteration that links ‘bolts’ and ‘bones, ‘feet’ and ‘fettered’, and the repeated ‘an’ sound stressed in ‘manacles’ and ‘hands’, reflect the image described through thee idea of pairs – each part of the soul has an equivalent part of the body, which connects to it and fastens it down. The effect continues through the stanza with ‘blinded’ and ‘eye’, ‘deaf’ and ‘drumming’. The wonderful, graphic line ‘Of nerves, and arteries, and veins’ is fragmented by caesura into a symmetrical pattern of 1 foot, 2 feet, 1 foot – suggesting the entwining of strands of thread, or the rigid form of the body cutting up the shapeless soul. The stanza ends with a rhetorical flourish, demonstrating confidence and wit. The iambic tetrameter is altered by a spondaic substitution that emphasizes ‘vain head’. This pairs with ‘double heart’ to give a conclusion that sounds decisive and satisfying. The ending encourages us to unpick the meaning of ‘double heart’ – it implies both ‘excessive amounts’ – uncontrollable feeling, and being prone to changes of mood’, as in two-faced.
The Body’s lament of Stanza 2 takes a similar argument. The connotations that attach the word ‘tyrannic’ put in motion a whole set of images in the readers’ mind – political might and oppression, rebellion and violent punishment similar to the torture described in stanza 1. We notice throughout the poem that both entities use the same arguments against each other. On a deeper level there is a lack of clarity about which human traits are accountable to which part of the human. The meanings suggested by ‘double heart’ seem to reproach the Body for over-feeling – yet here in Stanza 2 the ‘heat’ of passionate emotion is ascribed to the Soul, which ‘warms and moves this needless frame’. On a fundamental level, Marvell suggests that there is unity between these two seemingly opposite forces, such that their respective actions are inseparable form one another.
The final lines of Stanza 2 play on religious and superstitious imagery to demonstrate wit and mastery of rhetoric. Line 18 echoes but inverts the theological paradoxes found in devotional works of Herbert and Donne, which state that a person must die (in a spiritual sense) in order to live. Lines 19 and 20 portray the Body as a troubled spirit, forced to stalk the earth, ‘never rest’, as a result of being ‘possessed’ by a soul. There is irony in the fact that the soul is a person’s access to heaven, yet here it keeps the body grounded in a kind of purgatorial state. The transition to the third Stanza, with the Soul’s questioning of ‘magic’, goes almost unnoticed after the Body’s discussion of ‘spirits’ and being ‘possessed’. The fact that Soul and Body adopt one another’s images and manners of speaking is further suggestion that the two voices come from the same fundamental source.
The Soul’s ironic presentation of sickness in Stanza 3 pivots on the idea that the soul is on a journey to heaven – as seen in Marvell poems such as A Drop of Dew, the soul feels uncomfortable on earth. Therefore for the Soul every bodily sickness hurts double – first in sympathy for the pain of the body, and then in frustration after restored health ‘shipwrecks’ the Soul’s efforts to reach heaven through death. The body then twists the idea of sickness again, casting all emotions as forms of disease. The steady accumulation achieved through listing is strengthened by the lack of enjambement, maintaining the crisp rhetorical sound, and giving the effect of a doctor’s formal list of diagnoses. The resultant view of human life that emerges is as an impossible struggle against the pain of emotion, a siege of paradoxes and an inner battle between the elements of a person. It’s strange that such a chaotic picture should emerge from such ordered, controlled verse.
Even stranger is the enigmatic final image. Spoken by the body, it could describe the Soul (the ‘architect’) breaking and shaping the Body (the ‘tree’ or ‘forest’), in order to ‘build [it] up for sin’. Yet the intelligence suggested by ‘architect’, and the symmetry and beauty suggested by ‘square’, leave us with a sense of order and creation as well as brutality and destruction. The line could be read as a distillation of the process described by the rest of the poem – that by being subjected to the awkward contraries of life, a person is prepared for the building of something new.