In rereading Andrew Marvell today I was just as stunned now, as I was when I first found out that his poetry wasn’t discovered until almost thirty years after his death, and never fully appreciated until the nineteenth century. How did that happen? I mean, yes, there are explanations of how his work was not originally found. But what happened after it was? Did people read it for over a hundred years and say “Eh…” ? Really? Granted he didn’t write as much as some of his contemporaries (although he still wrote plenty), but the quality of his work far surpassed many. What strikes me the most is the way in which his poetry redefined conventional ideas. He found new ways of stating old thoughts, which is no small feat.
I am looking through almost a dozen Norton Anthologies right now, and several of his poems are featured, but the ones which interested me the most are To His Coy Mistress and A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body. While these two poems are seemingly concerned with different topics and devised in different styles, they fundamentally deal with the same contradictions and complements; the underlying philosophy is very much the same. Basically it seems that the the life of the spirit is in direct competition with the life of pleasure.
When I saw the poems are devised in different styles, I am not referring to the actual way they are written, which is identical. Both poems present an argument, and the logic of this argument is captured in the construction of the poem – both are written in couplets of iambic tetrameter, never faltering in the rhyme scheme. This regular rhythm adds to the persuasive nature of the poems, lending structure to the seemingly logical arguments. The constant enjambments give you very little time to react to what is being stated, as you are constantly carried from one line to the next in a smooth ceaseless flow. He doesn’t really give the reader time to think about it. Otherwise the flaws in the argument (intentional though they may be), would be immediately perceived. It takes several readings to really capture what he is saying, or better, what he is not saying.
A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body is obviously a dialogue, not just as implied by the title, but as the two entities, the body and soul, volley lamentations back and forth it is by all means a conversation. Coy Mistress, however, is also a dialogue. It is not overtly so, and can be seen as perhaps an internal dialogue, but there is a sense of conversation, or at the very least response. Why else would the speaker change his argument midway through? I would think the implication is that he receives a response and must alter his argument accordingly.
In the first poem Marvell attempts to construct a duet between the soul and body, irreconcilable opposites, examining the relationship between the incorporeal and material worlds while also discussing the various powers of the mind. The futility lies in the fact that neither participant has a chance of persuading the other in its case. In the second poem he presents, through his speaker, a highly edited version of reality. Only if there is no choice of eternity can the lover’s persuasions at a particular choice in life seem valid.
While the soul is fettered by the bones of the body, and the body is haunted by an inextricable spirit, the mistress is trapped by time. Life is self-limiting. Yet in the end, both poems remain inconclusive. The state of both the body and soul remain unchanged, along with the mistress’s coy and chaste status. The dialogue remains intact, in that it never moves forward. Even in the first poem as the body and soul become incendiary there is no sense of winning or losing. I personally find the soul’s assertions more compelling, especially in light of the verbal abuses the body seems be delivering. Yet I cannot but feel as though the body has the last word. Yes, the body has the last word literally, as in the last stanza is given to the body, but the last remark the body makes, answering the seemingly rhetorical question it just asked with an equally metaphorical statement, ends the poem on a powerful note. As for the mistress? She is hardly the point. Whether or not she concedes to the speaker does not detract from the reasoning of the lines, nor the impact of the end. Once again it seems the physical has a final say.
But even with close analysis it is difficult to find any explicit answer in either poem. There are conjectures, and opinions. I have a couple. I think Marvell favored the physical. Why else would he have his poems end the way they did? You don’t give the last word to the losing party. Even in Coy Mistress where the mistress is never actually heard from, the speaker does not again change his argument, because he doesn’t have to. The body has the last stanza because the soul has no reply, and cannot have any.
Yet these poems, even as they may favor the physical, are not temporal. The overarching philosophy and reasoning behind these dialogues transcend time, and remain everlasting. Even as the Coy Mistress is trapped by time, she exists eternally.These dialogues are irreconcilable because they can be had again and again ad infinitum. Marvell may provide his point of view through the speakers and positioning of lines, but the fundamental ideas outlined here resist resolution.