Wednesday 16 December 2020

Death the Leveller


Death the Leveller

[The idea conveyed by the poet in this poem is that death is a great leveller and it does not have any prejudice for or against a king or a pauper, the mighty or the weak, the rich or the poor. All bow before Death’s power. Everyone has to yield and submit before the might of Death. Hence man should not be proud of his great deeds.]

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. 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.  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. -James Shirley

[James Shirley was born in 1596 in London. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, he worked as a schoolmaster most of his life. His reputation as a writer rests largely on his plays. He wrote about forty plays including tragedies, romantic comedies and comedies of manners. His famous songs and lyrics are found in his plays.]




blood – birth, parentage


sceptre – rod or staff carried by a ruler as a sign of power or authority.


laurels –emblem of the conqueror, symbols of victory


captives – prisoners


victoc -  victim – the conqueror as well as the vanquished.


Enjoying the poem:


1.     What is the theme or the central idea of the poem?

Ans. Death spares none. It is great leveler. The high and low, the rich and poor cannot escape the icy hands of death. There is no defence against death. The only things that last forever are the just and noble deeds.


2.     Write the summary of the poem in your own words.

Ans. In this poem James Shirley shows that the king and the peasant, the warrior and this victim are all equal in the eyes of death. The glories of one’s high birth, caste, religion, class or one’s position in the society or money ultimately means nothing. Everything is destroyed by death. Only those who acted rightly and justly are remembered and their goodness stays in the minds of men forever.


3.     What lesson do you get from this poem?

Ans. The poem teachers that it is useless to take pride in our achievements or our high position in society. Death reduces everybody to dust. Men kill each other and feel proud of the victories. This is a meaningless pride. The memory of a noble action lives forever. Man is remembered by his good deeds.


4.     What does the expression ‘scythe and spade’ stand for in line 8?

Ans. Scythe is used by farmers and spade is used by labourers. So the expression scythe and spade’ here stands for poor working class.


5.     Do the conquerors tame death or the dead?

Ans. No, conquerors do not tame death or the dead. They yield to death as others do. They cannot avoid death. They become powerless and lie in their graves when death overpowers them. In the same way, conquerors cannot exercise their power over the dead. A man who has died can suffer no harm from a conquerors.


6.     Explain the lines


“Only the actions of the just

Smell sweet and blossom in their dust’’

 Ans. In these lines, the poet wants to tell us that only the action of good and noble persons are remembered even after their death. People praise them and feel grateful for the good that they have done to others. The poet compares their noble deeds to sweet smelling flowers in these lines.



7.     Write true or false against the following sentences:


(a)  There is no armour against fate.                                                              True


(b) Death spares the mighty but punishes the weak.                                         False


(c) Death can even kill good deeds.                                                                    False


(d) Death lays his icy hand on kings.                                                                           True



8.     This poem highlights the uselessness of human power and might. What is that cannot be

snatched by death?


Ans. Death snatches everything from us, but it cannot snatch our good and noble deeds. These deeds are remembered even after death because they find a permanent place in the hearts of people.


9. Read John Donne’s poem ‘Death, Be not Proud’ and compare the two poems.