Interpreting Shirley’s Death The Leveller

james shirley's poem interpretation

James Shirley’s poem – ‘Death the leveler’

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armor 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.

Interpreting the Poem


In James Shirley’s poem, Death, The Leveler there is a line that says ‘death lays his icy hand on kings’.

This is a line of great significance.

When reading the poem in the beginning we might find it to a poem having historic references of kings and wars that took place in the past.

But, there is more to it.

The poem has got a spiritual significance and relevance.

The poet uses the term King in the 1st Para.

King has all luxuries. So, he is the greatest of all sense enjoyers.

Thet erm king refers to any person who tries to enjoy the world with his various sense organs.

It refers to the person who wants to derive utmost pleasure from the fleeting visions of the world.

The irony of the fact is that though a person tries his level best to make most of the world with his mind and his senses.

However, the world stuff simply escapes his grip just as sand grains escape our grip as we try to grasp it harder.

Weaving the initial sentences with this term we learn that all that we believe as glory, sense pleasure, happiness, etc come to an end with death.

Both the sense objects, as well as the sense enjoyer cannot escape the clutches of death.

In short, the first stanza focuses on impermanence born out of our false assumption of happiness and pleasure.

It indicates death of a special kind, impermanence.

Crux of the Poem

The fleeting visions of the world are only in appearance and do not have a true grounding.

The fact of the world is that all the world’s activities and engagements are going to be snatched away.

So, it is just a matter of time before the reality of death snatches our dreams and plans with reckless precision and nobody can stop that.

We may depend on the future by nurturing the future generation well.

But, it is time that reminds us that we are not meant for the future.

It is impermanence and death that separate past from the future.

Death is the Only Reality and everything else is just fleeting fluff.

It is a stuff less story that is created around it to while away time and perhaps hopelessly evade the fear of Death.

No matter how much we try to remain alive in the future, we are susceptible to death.

A long-lasting forgetfulness blankets the future world, keeping our traces far away from their reach.

We might sacrifice and try to make our mark through our stories.

But, the future realizes our narcissist instinct and the warp of time strangulates our existence.

The Ending Lines

However, we must analyze the last two lines.

Shirley writes… Only the actions of the just, Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.

This is an indication that we must adopt some Sanity into our Lives, to remain alive.

Only the stick of Righteousness and Moral can keep us alive.

Though this is an English Poem, there is an Indian influence of Dharma or righteousness, what we call it in Vedic terms.

To become a source of inspiration, to be liked by the common man today, violence has never proven to be an adequate tool.

Only Righteousness or Dharma as discussed in our Vedic Scriptures can become a source of inspiration for people today.

This is the reason why people recall the pastimes of Sri Rama and Lord Krishna as they established Dharma through the wars of Ramayana and Mahabharatha, (on the battlefield of Kurukshetra).

Why should we Contemplate on Death?


In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna Reveals that He is Death Personified.

A person who meditates on Death throughout his life is an enlightened one.

Death is a negative phenomenon, people say but one who is ever watchful and aware of Death is a person of great intelligence.

In fact, one of the most potent spiritual practices that are found effective is trying to remember our relationship with Death.

A person who is aware of Death is a person who does not indulge himself in sense pleasures.

Such a person is a wise one who, through the practice of Death remembrance has conquered fear.

It will be interesting to note that all the fears of the world are rooted in the fear of Death.

Therefore if one is intensely aware of Death, he shall gradually lose all other fears in Life.

Death is a great reliever and if one is intelligent, he shall use the concept of Death to attain victory over Life.

In the end, however, Death shall take over.

Thanks for reading!