Summary and Analysis of Death the Leveller by James Shirley
About the poet:
Shirley was born in London in September 1596. He was educated first at Merchant Taylors’ School, London, and then at St John’s College, Oxford, and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. His first poem, Echo, or the Unfortunate Lovers (of which no copy is known, but which is thought to be the same as Narcissus of 1646), was published in 1618. Apparently, in consequence of his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, he became a master of St Albans School from 1623–25. His first play, Love Tricks, seems to have been written at this time. He moved to London in 1625, where he lived in Gray’s Inn. For the next eighteen years, he was a prolific writer for the stage, producing more than thirty regular plays, tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies.
Shirley’s sympathies were with the King in his disputes with Parliament and he often received marks of special favour from the Queen. Between 1636 and 1640 Shirley went to Ireland, under the patronage of the Earl of Kildare. Three or four of his plays were produced by his friend John Ogilby in Dublin in the Werburgh Street Theatre, the first ever theatre built in Ireland and only one year old at the time of Shirley’s visit.The final plays of his London career were acted by the King’s Men.
On the outbreak of the English Civil War Shirley served with the Earl of Newcastle, but when the King’s fortunes began to decline he returned to London. Here he supported himself chiefly by teaching and publishing some educational works under the Commonwealth. He also translated the Iliad and the Odyssey. Shirley, who was 70 years old at the time, and his second wife died of fright and exposure after the Great Fire of London and were buried at St Giles in the Fields on 29th October 1666.
About Death the Leveller:
The well-known lyric, “Death the Leveller”, also known by its first line as “The Glories of our Blood and State”, appears at the very end of James Shirley’s play entitled The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the Armour of Achilles, which was printed in the year 1659.
The setting of Death the Leveller:
This poem shifts between a number of settings. In the first stanza, we get a glimpse of kingly courts as well as of the fields of peasants. In the second stanza, we are confronted with a battlefield. In the third stanza, we see an altar of human sacrifice as well as a graveyard.
Stanza-wise Annotation of Death the Leveller:
Please note: N= noun, V=verb, Adj=Adjective, Adv=Adverb, P=Preposition
Substantial (Adj): Of considerable importance, size, or worth
Armour (N): The metal coverings formerly worn to protect the body in battle
Fate (N): The development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power
Sceptre (N): An ornamented staff carried by rulers on ceremonial occasions as a symbol of sovereignty
Tumble (V): Fall suddenly, clumsily, or headlong
Scythe (N): A tool used for cutting crops such as grass or corn, with a long curved blade at the end of a long pole attached to one or two short handles
Spade (N): A tool with a sharp-edged, typically rectangular, metal blade and a long handle, used for digging or cutting earth, sand, turf, etc.
Reap (V): Receive (something, especially something beneficial) as a consequence of one’s own or another’s actions
Laurels (N): Plural form of the word “laurel”, that is, the foliage of the bay tree woven into a wreath or crown and worn on the head as an emblem of victory or mark of honour in classical times
Nerves (N): Plural form of the word “Nerve”, that is, one’s steadiness and courage in a demanding situation
Yield (V): Give way to arguments, demands, or pressure
Stoop (V): Bend one’s head or body forwards and downwards
Captives (N): Plural form of the word “captive”, that is, a person who has been taken prisoner or an animal that has been confined
Garlands (N): Plural form of the word “garland”, that is, a wreath of flowers and leaves, worn on the head or hung as a decoration
Wither (V): (Of a plant) become dry and shrivelled
Mighty (Adj): Possessing great and impressive power or strength, especially because of size
Deeds (N): Plural form of the word “deed”, that is, an action that is performed intentionally or consciously
Altar (N): A table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity
Just (Adj): Based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair
Stanza-wise Summary of Death the Leveller:
The poem consists of 3 stanzas. Each of these stanzas is again made up of 8 lines. Hence, the entire poem consists of 24 lines in total.
“The glories of our birth and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate:
Death lays his icy hands on kings;
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”
In this stanza, the poet says that all the great achievements of people in our families or our communities will not matter in the end. There is nothing anyone can do to avoid the calling of Fate because man is destined to die. Death comes to kings as well as farmers. That is why, where they are buried, the vestments and weapons of the king are not superior in any way to farm implements.
“Some men with swords 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.”
In this stanza, the poet says that men with swords often win battles, and get both fame and glory because of that. However, in the end, their courage is nothing in the face of Fate. All warriors are overpowered by death and must surrender in defeat at some point of time. They may put up a fight, but in the end they will lose their vigour and move slowly towards the end of their lives.
“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:
All heads must come
To the cold tomb,
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.”
In this stanza, the poet says that no matter what great deeds man does, his prizes and achievements will not last. One who has been a victor will also turn into a victim in their fight with Death. Ultimately, they must sacrifice themselves to this most powerful of deities in his own altar. In the end, they shall be buried under the earth. However, man may die but his actions won’t. If one has been just and fair in one’s life, then one’s actions can never be buried.
Critical Analysis of Death the Leveller:
The title of “Death the Leveller” tells us what the poem is about even before we have read the poem. The poet here says that all men are made equal in death, and also that death is an absolute certainty for all men. Poor men die easily because they do not have too many resources. They may die of hunger. They may die because they cannot afford treatment for diseases. Rich men do not have such worries. And yet rich men must also die. If not for anything else, they will certainly die of old age. Hence, death is not something that either rich or poor people can escape. Even great warriors must bow down before Fate because man is destined to die. These are the men who kill others in the battlefield and believe it is glorious to do so. But there is no shortage of valiant fighters. One day the same men who had killed hundreds must themselves die. That is why it is said that to be born is to die. However, what we must keep in mind is that only the physical body of man is destroyed in death. Man’s great deeds live on. If he has been just towards his fellow men, then his deeds will be remembered for centuries after his death. Generations of his offspring will read about him in history books. Man’s great deeds will blossom like a fragrant flower from the dust where the human body is buried, and these deeds will continue to inspire others who come to inhabit this world after we are long gone.
Poetic Devices in Death the Leveller:
Each of the three stanzas in “Death the Leveller” follows the same rhyme scheme – ABABCCDD.
This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of metaphor in lines 1-2 when he compares all the glorious events in man’s life with shadows, since both of these do not have any material presence or value in the greater scheme of things.
This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of personification in line 3 with respect to Fate, and again in line 4 with respect to Death. Both fate and Death are visible figures in the poet’s imagination.
This rhetorical device is used when an emotion is attributed to a non-living thing after being displaced from a person, most often the poet himself or herself. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of transferred epithet in line 8 when he calls the scythe and the spade “poor”. Of course, it is not that they are actually financially unstable, but that the people who hold them cannot afford anything better.
This rhetorical device consists of the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of metonymy in line 1 when he uses the word “field” to mean wars which are fought on battlefields.
In this stanza, the poet uses the device of metaphor in line 2 when he compares getting fame and glory with planting laurels.
Central Idea of Death the Leveller:
Men who are distinguished by class in life, are rendered equal in death. Neither king nor farmer can escape the inevitability of death. Victors in battle must also lose to Death. The only aspect of human life that survives is his noble deeds. These will live on despite man’s eventual demise.
Themes of Death the Leveller:
Dust thou art, to dust returnest: The Bible says that man has evolved out of the stuff of the earth, out of dust as it were. And ultimately, man must return to dust as well. That is, man must be buried in the very earth that gave birth to him. Shirley does not use these very words in “Death the Leveller”. However, this phrase of the Bible could not have escaped his mind when he says in the last stanza when he says that all men’s heads must touch the cold tomb at some point of time or the other.
The route to immortality: The point that Shirley stresses again and again in this poem is that man is mortal. Neither will individual men survive nor will the human as a species. Is man then to not leave any trace of his existence on earth? He certainly is. This trace left by man will be in the form of his great deeds. Man’s noble deeds are the only way in which he will remain immortal.
The tone of Death the Leveller:
The overarching tone of “Death the Leveller” is one of fatalism as the poet stresses the inevitability of death. However, there is a sense of poetic justice at the end of the first stanza when the poet shows how kings are farmers are made equal in death. In the second stanza, the tone subtly changes from one of valiant victory in the battle to that of piteous surrender to Death. Only in the last two lines of the poem is there a tone of hope and optimism when the poet asserts that man’s good deeds will never die.
“Death the Leveller” is a poem that has successfully stood the test of time. Written in Elizabethan times, it appeals just as much to modern and contemporary readers. That is because it does not offer us false optimism. It does not assert the greatness of man. Instead, it gives us a realistic picture of life and death, and only towards the end does it appeal to our emotional nature. It captures the dilemma of human existence beautifully in fact.