Here is a summary, analysis, and review of ‘Death the Leveller’ by James Shirley, a poem on the power of good deeds to survive the strangle hold of death.
James Shirley’s ‘Death the Leveller’ is a hauntingly philosophical poem about the dismal march of death that tramples down human pride and pomp. It presents a vividly personified picture of death as the ultimate conqueror in whose realm perfect equality prevails.
The poem opens, reminding the reader of the futility of taking pride in one’s birth and state. No armour offers protection from the merciless hands of death. The ultimate leveller comes and lays his icy hands on kings and clowns alike. The sceptre and the crown of the king fall down and lie equal in the dust with the poor peasant’s scythe and spade.
Worldly victory and success too are futile before death. Some men reap and heap enemy heads in the battlefield and win laurels to adorn their heads. They too shall bow their heads before death. But poor mortals still tame and kill one another like thoughtless beasts.
Strength and courage too shall pass. We all die helpless and weak. The garlands on our heads wither and lose their charm and the victories they once proclaimed are forgotten. We too lose our charm and like pale captives we creep to death with a feeble murmur. Death’s altar is purple and no ‘blue blood’ has ever been shed there. Here the victors too, are victims. The winners too are sacrificed and sent to their cold tombs.
In the end, we must return to the dust from which we all came, but the good deeds of the just will blossom from the dust and smell sweet forever.
Analysis of the poem: ‘Death the Leveller’ deals with the recurrent theme of the futility of human vanity and pride which are rendered ineffectual in the end, with death looming large over us. But the poem leaves an optimistic note with the actions of the just surviving the sting of death.
Figures of speech abound and add to the charm of the poem. Death is personified and shown as ‘laying his icy hands’. Metonymy is employed in the beautiful contrast between ‘sceptre and crown’ and ‘scythe and spade’.
The poem was originally included in James Shirley’s interlude “The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses” as Calchas’ hymn at the funeral of Ajax.
Comparative note: On the Tombs in Westminster Abbey by Francis Beaumont also deals with the same theme and is often used as a piece for comparison. Another poem on the ephemeral nature of power is Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. One is also reminded of Lord Rama’s advice to Lakshmana in Thunchathu Ezhuthachan’s Adhyathma Ramayanam, a classic of Malayalam literature:
“Brahmanoham, narendroham, aadyoham,
Ennamedritham kalarneedum dashanthare,
Janthukkal bhakshichu kaashtichu pokilaam,
Venthu venneerai chamanju poyeedilaam,
Manninnuu keezhai krumikalai pokilaam,
Nannalla deham nimitham maha moham.”