Summary / Review / Appreciation

James Shirley’s poem “Death the Leveller” depicts the fact that Death does not care if one is a king or a peasant. It was written as a funeral song for Ajax at the end of his play “The Contention”.

The poem states that the glories of our lineage and achievements are just shadows.  They are not substantial things.  There is no protection against the certainty of death.  The kings and the ordinary people face the same fate irrespective of their social status. 

Some men may become victorious in battles and win laurels.  But these victors also become victims of fate.  The garlands of achievements wither and their glory fades.  Every head that wears those laurels should at last come to the cold tomb.  The only thing that distinguishes one from another after death is the memory of their good deeds.  Such people continue to spread fragrance long after they are dead.

The poem is written in three stanzas of eight lines each rhyming ABABCCDD.  The personification of death in the first stanza, who touches kings with his ‘icy hands’ lends subtle seriousness to the poem.  The poet also uses figures of speech like metonymy and metaphor successfully.  The Oxymoron victor-victim creates a compelling image in the poem. 

Death the Leveller is a powerful poem that appeals to the reader to think about their actions before carrying them out.  Their just actions are the only substantial things that lend them a place in the memory of people.