Introduction

Death the Leveller by James Shirley is a poem that talks about the inevitability of death. The poet tells us how every man must bow before death, notwithstanding their position in life. Death comes for all, and it does not discriminate. Death is the leveller because it brings all humans to the same level.

About the Poet

James Shirley (1596-1666), is known as the last of the Elizabethans. He was a playwright who also published four small volumes of poems and plays.

Theme

‘Death the Leveller’ is a funeral song. However, it appeals to the reader to think about human actions. The main theme of the poem is death and its inevitability.

Stanza 1

THE glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

The poet says that glories such as nobility and royalty are merely shadows, they are not actual things. There is no defence against one’s fate or destiny. Death comes for kings too. Even the people with sceptres and crowns, must tumble down. So, even kings with all the power in the world must die and in the dust be made equal with the poor farmers who use scythes and spades. Therefore, all men are equal in death.

Stanza 2

Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill:
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
They tame but one another still:
Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath
When they, pale captives, creep to death.

Some men may reap the field with swords, and plant fresh laurels where they kill. A warrior’s victories are compared to the reaping of a field where they plant laurels of victory. Men might seek fame all their lives, fighting with swords and celebrating their kills and victories with fresh laurels, but their strong nerves must submit to death at the end. Men might tame one other, but even if its early or late, they fall to their own fate. They must give up their murmuring breath when death creeps up on them. No matter how glorious men might be in their lifetime, they are just pale captives to death.

Stanza 3

The garlands wither on your brow;
Then boast no more your mighty deeds!
Upon Death’s purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds;
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb;
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

The garlands of victory will wither on our brow, as then they cannot boast of our mighty deeds when we are dead. This means that our fame dies with us. Everyone is equal before death. They must bow before its purple altar. A victor in life becomes the victim before death. Every person’s head must come to the cold tomb their body is buried in after death. Only the virtuous actions of truly just people live on even after their death.