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Death the Leveller by James Shirley

“Death the Leveller” is an epigrammatic poem written by the English poet and dramatist James Shirley. This poem centers on the egalitarian nature of death. Death gives the ultimate ruling over a man’s life. It does not differentiate between the mortally mightiest or the weakest. Death treats everyone similarly. When one dies, no matter how great he is, has to reside in the cold chamber grave. None can avoid its “crooked scythe”. According to Shirley, it turns worldly glory to the dust. Only the actions of a “just” and the virtuous person blossom after his death. In this poem, Shirley’s thoughts revolve around the ideas of the transience of worldly glory and the inevitability of death. 

  • Read the full text of “Death the Leveller” here with the analysis section.
Analysis of Death the Leveller by James Shirley


Summary

In the first stanza of “Death the Leveller”, Shirley’s poetic persona refers to the inheritance of nobility and the royal aura. They are nothing but shadows of reality. None can defend oneself from the blow of the warrior named “Death”. Each person, be it a king or a poor farmer, has to come under the sickle’s compass of fate.

The second stanza focuses on worldly glory and fame. Men seek recognition and do their best as they can. One day they yield to death, earlier or later. At last, the murmuring sound of life gets muted. Slowly and silently they creep like powerless creatures to the dominion of oblivion.

The third stanza contains the most important idea of the poem. Here, Shirley talks about the inevitability of one’s death. Everyone is treated similarly at its “purple altar”. Only virtuous actions live past the final event of a man’s life. Those actions are passed onto future generations as a sweet song and blossom in the dust.

Meaning

The title of the poem “Death the Leveller” is a concept that reoccurs in poems from both the past and present. Shirley’s idea concerning egalitarianism is portrayed in this poem. Death is just a metaphor through which he tries to check on the transgression of one’s aspirations. His scything words do not spare the royals nor the lowly ones. He speaks on the nature of life as well as death. According to him, everyone is treated similarly. The difference in respect to their social status is insubstantial. In order to get out of the cold clutches of death, one has to do things that matter to humankind.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

This poem is structurally regular, metrically sonorous, and internally rhythmical. Shirley groups the lines into three stanzas. Each stanza contains eight rhyming lines. The overall poem is written in the form of an epigram. Regarding the speaker, it is written from the third-person point of view.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABABCCDD. It means the first four lines contain the alternative rhyme scheme and the rest of the lines form two rhyming couplets. This scheme is followed throughout the poem.

In the first stanza, the rhyming pair of words are:

  • “state” & “Fate”
  • “things” & “kings”
  • “Crown” & “down”
  • “made” & “spade”

Meter

There are eight syllables per line in the case of the first four lines and the last two lines of each stanza. Each of these lines consists of four iambs. It means they are composed in iambic tetrameter. In the case of lines five and six, they consist of two iambs. They are in iambic dimeter. So, the overall poem is composed in iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter.

Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza:

THE glo/-ries of/ our blood/ and state     

  Are sha/-dows, not/ sub-stan/-tial things;     

There is/ no ar/-mour a/-gainst Fate;     

  Death lays/ his i/-cy hand/ on kings:     

        Scep-tre/ and Crown             

        Must tum/-ble down,     

  And in/ the dust/ be e/-qual made     

With the/ poor crook/-èd scythe/ and spade.

The variations used here are:

  • The first foot of the fourth and fifth lines is trochaic.
  • There is a pyrrhic (“With the”) and a spondee (“poor crook”) in the first two feet of the last line.


Poetic Devices & Figures of Speech

The poet uses the following poetic devices in order to make his ideas more appealing to readers.

  • Metaphor: The poem “Death the Leveller” begins with a metaphor. Here, “glories of blood and state” are compared to “shadows”. Besides, “glories of blood and state” refers to the worldly fame of aristocrats and statesmen. Shirley uses another metaphor in the first two lines of the second stanza. Here, a warrior’s glory on the battlefield is compared to the ideas of reaping and planting “fresh laurels”.
  • Metonymy: In “Sceptre and Crown”, Shirley uses metonymy. These terms refer to the kings. Whereas the “crookèd scythe and spade” is a metonym for farmers. The variety used here is “the instrument of the user”. In the second stanza, “Laurel” is a metonym (or a symbol for the thing symbolized) for fame and achievement. 
  • Synecdoche: In the line “And in the dust be equal made”, “dust” represents the human body. It is an example of a synecdoche. Another instance of synecdoche occurs in the line “The garlands wither on your brow”.
  • Epigram: Shirley makes use of this device throughout the piece. For example, the lines “And in the dust be equal made”, “Only the actions of the just/ Smell sweet and blossom in their dust” contain memorable, epigrammatic ideas.
  • Personification: The title “Death the Leveller” contains a personification. Here, “Death”, an abstract concept, is invested with life. It also occurs in “Death lays his icy hand on kings” and “Death’s purple altar”. In this poem, “Death” is portrayed as powerful as God.
  • Litotes: The poem begins with the use of this device. Shirley makes use of this device in “not substantial things” and “There is no armour against Fate” for the sake of emphasis.
  • Onomatopoeia: It occurs in “murmuring breath”.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds can be found in “scythe and spade”, “victor-victim”, “smell sweet” etc.
  • Oxymoron: The term “victor-victim” is an example of an oxymoron. Here, the “victor” of worldly battles is referred to as a “victim” of Death.


Themes

The central idea of “Death the Leveller” concerns the egalitarian nature of death. Throughout the poem, Shirley depicts how Death makes everyone submit to his authority. There is literally no one who can postpone the event. It is the ultimate truth in a man’s life. According to the poet, worldly glory is insubstantial or temporary. What remains is one’s just actions. Apart from that, everything returns to dust, be it one’s haughty achievements or glory on the battlefield. This poem also taps on the themes of virtue, the inevitability of death, fame, and fatalism.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Critical Appreciation

Stanza One

Lines 1-3

THE glories of our blood and state  

  Are shadows, not substantial things;  

There is no armour against Fate;   

The poem “Death the Leveller begins with a reference to worldly glories associated with one’s noble bloodline. Shirley also belonged to a noble, knighted family in England. Hence, he uses the pronoun “our” to refer to all the noble and royal families. According to him, their fame is like a shadow. They are not permanent things.

In the following line, he uses the term “armour” that symbolizes Fate (the inescapable death of a man) as a warrior. By using this imagery of way, the poet portrays mankind in constant war with their fate or death. In the end, Death comes out victorious and gives the ultimate ruling.

Lines 4-8

  Death lays his icy hand on kings:  

        Sceptre and Crown          

        Must tumble down,  

  And in the dust be equal made  

With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.

The personified Death lays his cold hands on everyone including kings, noblemen, statesmen, and poor farmers. Shirley uses the phrase “icy hand” in order to hint at the cold hands of a dead person. According to him, “Sceptre” and “Crown” (a reference to a monarch) must tumble down. It means the royal power is impermanent. One kind can lose his crown at any moment. A single instance of unmindful action can snatch their authority away.

Finally, the poet pointedly infers that at the ultimate moment, everyone is going to turn into dust. Once boastful of their power and authority, the kings lay alongside their subjects in the dust after their death. In the last line, the poet refers to the poor farmers by referring to the instruments they use. It includes the “crookèd scythe” and “spade”.

Stanza Two

Lines 9-10

Some men with swords may reap the field,     

  And plant fresh laurels where they kill:      

The second stanza begins with a metaphor. Shirley refers to the warriors by using the term “swords”. Furthermore, he compares their act of killing others on the battlefield to reaping and planting. In this way, he connects the action of farmers to that of a warrior or a king. His egalitarian mindset is portrayed through this line. Here, he tries to say that no matter what the social status or profession of a person is. Everyone’s act is of equal importance.

Warriors fight relentlessly for the sake of worldly fame, referred to by the term “laurels”. While farmers work day and night for the sake of keeping themselves alive. In this poem, the poet is sympathetic toward the contribution of the poor farmers. He is critical of the aspirations of the people from the upper section of society such as kings and noblemen.

Lines 11-16

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.  

In the following lines, the poet says that their “strong nerves” (willpower and bravery) must yield to the Death, sooner or later. Their wild spirits are tamed by the mighty holds of Death. Not only that, they have to stoop to fate and accept what is already written.

At last, the murmur of one’s breath is muted when they creep to death as “pale captives”. It is important to note the idea behind some specific words. For example, the “murmuring breath” is a reference to old age when a person loses the ability to speak. As a person turns older and nears his impending death, his skin turns pale. Shirley connects this paleness of an old man’s skin to that of a captive, deprived of food. In this way, he tries to say that all human beings become “pale captives” of Death in their old age.

Stanza Three

Lines 17-18

The garlands wither on your brow,     

  Then boast no more your mighty deeds!     

In the last stanza of “Death the Leveller”, Shirley similarly uses some interesting ideas in order to bring home the fact that death is the ultimate leveller of all inequalities. Firstly, he refers to “garlands” on one’s “brow”. It is a hint at worldly achievements. According to the poet, those achievements are insubstantial. None boast of those mighty achievements after the person’s death.

Mortal beings crave fame and struggle throughout their lives in order to leave a mark behind. No matter how hard they try, the things that are done for egotistical satisfaction do not last long. They fade like the water of a pond in scorching summer. There comes another person who again fills this pond in his life’s monsoons. This cycle goes on. The pond is permanent, not its water. Fame is exactly similar to the water in a pond.

Lines 19-22

Upon Death’s purple altar now     

  See where the victor-victim bleeds.      

        Your heads must come     

        To the cold tomb:     

In the end, everyone has to congregate at “Death’s purple altar”. Here, “Death” is compared to God. “Purple” is an intermediate color between red and blue. If red and blue symbolize life and death respectively, “purple” is the color of the critical juncture between life and death. Through this reference, the poet points at the last moment of a man’s life, just before death.

In his altar, a victor of worldly affairs bleeds like a victim. Shirley says that the “heads” must rest in the cold chamber of the tomb. It means the grave is the ultimate destination in a man’s life.

Lines 23-24

Only the actions of the just     

Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

The last two lines contain the main idea. Before reaching this idea, Shirley makes use of 22 lines, ornamented rhetorically, in order to make these lines sound more appealing and impressive. He says that only the actions of the virtuous and just “smell sweet” and “blossom” in their dust. Here, “virtue” is compared to flowers, emanating a sweet fragrance. Through these lines, the poet tries to say that a person’s virtuous acts only have a permanent impression that outlives his lifetime.

Historical Context

The poem “Death the Leveller” is written by the 17th century English dramatist James Shirley. Shirley flourished in the Late Renaissance period. He belonged to the oldest knighted family in Warwickshire, Shirleys of Warwick. Though he belonged to a noble family, his ideas were democratic and egalitarian. For example, in this poem, he implicitly criticizes the glories of noble blood. He rejects the idea of disparity among human beings concerning social status. According to him, all are mortal beings. One day, everyone must die. Even kings are laid in the same place where a poor farmer is buried. In this way, Shirley portrays his egalitarian thoughts in this poem.

Questions & Answers

Why death is called the leveller?

In this poem, Shirley portrays “Death” as the ultimate leveller of the inequalities existing among humankind. It is called so as mortal beings are destined to die. Be it a king or a poor farmer, one’s lifeless body turns into dust after death. In this way, death diminishes the inequalities in humans.

Are shadows not substantial?

In “Death the Leveller”, James Shirley compares the worldly fame of nobility to “shadows”. Shadow is used in reference to something insubstantial or transience. Fame or social status is like a shadow without any substance, thus not substantial.

Does the title of the poem “Death the Leveller” give an indication of the theme of the poem?

The title “Death the Leveller” is an apt indication of the central idea or theme poem. In this poem, Shirley centers his thoughts on the egalitarian nature of death. He portrays how Death treats kings and farmers similarly. In the end, he highlights the fact that only selfless acts can live past one’s death.

How is death personified in the poem “Death the Leveller”?

The poet personifies death in the title as a “Leveller”, one who has the ability to level something. He also personifies this abstract idea in “Death lays his icy hands on kings”.

What according to the poet survives after death?

According to the poet, the “actions of the just” (the humanitarian acts) survive after death.

What does the expression “scythe and spade” stand for in the poem “Death the Leveller”?

The expression “scythe and spade” stands for the poor farmers. It is a use of metonymy and the variety used here is “instrument for the user”.

What is meant by “pale captives”?

The phrase “pale captives” is a reference to the dead persons. It also hints at the pale skin of an old person. According to Shirley, human beings are held captive by death in their old age.

Why do the pale captives creep to death?

The “pale captives” are a reference to mortal beings. Therefore, they must die or creep to death.

What according to the poet are insubstantial things?

The “glories of blood and state” are insubstantial things as people do not remember the acts meant for one’s own egotistical satisfaction.

What according to the poet are “shadows” in “Death the Leveller”?

The worldly glories of the noblemen and statesmen are compared to “shadows”.

What does the garland on the brow symbolize?

The garland on one’s brow symbolizes a person’s achievements.

What does the expression “cold tomb” mean?

The “cold tomb” contains tactile imagery. Here, coldness inside the grace is a symbolic reference to the absence of life’s warmth.

How will the “Sceptre and crown” and the “scythe and spade” be made equal?

When Death lays his icy hands, the “Sceptre and crown”, a reference to kings, as well as “scythe and spade”, a reference to poor farmers, are made equal. A dead king lies in the same place where a farmer lies after death.

Why is there no armour against Fate?

Fate, or the inescapable death of a person, cannot be defended. Hence, the poet uses the term “armour” in order to say that humans are defenseless in front of Death.

What does the word “blood” mean in the poem “Death the Leveller”?

The term “blood” refers to the noblemen or persons of high social status.

What is the meaning of “Death lays his icy hand on kings”?

This line contains a personification. Here, Death is invested with the idea of laying his icy, cold hands on kings.

What is the message of the poem “Death the Leveller”?

Through this poem, Shirley says that our glories and achievements do not last long. Only the actions of the just and virtuous remain behind. Hence, one should focus more on the things meaningful for humankind, rather than fuelling own self-centric pleasures.


Similar Poems to “Death the Leveller”

  • “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” — Have you ever heard of this line “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”? It appears in this poem by Thomas Gray where he similarly talks about the egalitarian nature of death.
  • “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” — This song from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline is an ode to Death. Here, the poet talks about the inevitability of death.
  • “Our revels now are ended” — This memorable monologue from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is about the transience of life and worldly fame.
  • “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” — In this famous poem of Dylan Thomas, readers can find an interesting stance regarding death. Here, the poet refuses to mourn the death as none ever dies. To know more refer to the analysis.
  • “On the Tombs in Westminster Abbey” — The last two lines “Here’s a world of pomp and state,/ Buried in dust, once dead by fate,” tells us all about the poem.
  • “Ozymandias” — In this best-known poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, readers can find the themes of the insubstantial nature of fame and life.


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