” A soul, as ’twere in chains”


You’re back ! And so am I ! Last time I promised to look at one Marvell poem so we could get an idea of how he works. Here it is- or rather here the first half is. There’s so much meat in here it would take at least one post after this one to sort out out- or even more. And anyway, you can work it out for yourselves. Here we go-


Soul.   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. 

The clue is in the title- it’s a dialogue between the body- everything which is physical- and the soul- everything about us which isn’t physical- memories, emotions, spirit. If you’re an aetheist, by the way, think of the soul as consciousness- that will work just as well.

It’s about imprisonment- the soul imprisoned in the body; the body forced to walk the earth by a demanding soul.

The first stanza is an anatomy. The soul is “ fettered stands with feet” and “ manacled in hands.” Feet and hands give us the freedom to move around, to act in the world. But for the soul , they are the chains which tie it down. It’s a powerful, paradoxical image. Note the alliteration of “ feet” and “ fetters, by the way.

Look too at: “A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins “

This is a torture scene, isn’t it ? The soul, trapped within the limitations of the human body, hangs like a tormented criminal.

Life, for the soul, is an agony of limitation.

For the body, life is a state of slavery. The tyrannic soul forces the body into a life it does not want. It would be happier returning to the earth from whence it came, but it is forced to walk upright- “mine own precipice I go.”

The body never asked for life, and now it is alive- all it has to look forward to is death.

Technically, you can’t fault this poem… the paradoxes, the rhyme scheme, the alliteration. It’s as rich as fruit cake. But what do you take away from the poem ? I think Marvell is saying this. Life is not a steady state- things change, there are internal, emotional conflicts.

If you want to read more Andrew Marvell- then it’s widely available all over the internet.
He may have been writing 450 years ago…but he still has plenty to say to us.


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