Can you give me a critical analysis of the poem "Death the Leveller"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The poem is structured in three stanzas that consist of eight lines each.  The rhyme scheme of the poem is consistent throughout the poem.  The scheme of A-B-A-B-C-C-D-D follows in each of the stanzas.  For example, in the first stanza, notice “state” and “fate” is complemented with “things” and “kings”.  The last four lines of the stanza also rhyme but in couplets, such as “crown” and “down” and “made” and spade.  This pattern is in the subsequent stanzas, also.  The helps to build a rhythm where the first four lines describe while the last four lines summarize.  This rhythm feeds into the meanings of the poem.  The surface understanding of the poem is elemental in its assertion that death is a force that haunts all of what we, as human beings, do. This is repeated in several places in the poem.  The first four lines of each stanza discuss the concept of human victory and man made notions of success.  They also identify that the shadow of death looms in each of these setting.  The second four lines of each stanza undercuts all human success with the assertion that death is the termination point for everything we do, hence the title, “The Great Leveller.”  Shirley believes this to be the critical component in the symbolic meaning of the poem that death is something that plagues mortals and is inescapable.  In the first stanza, the opening lines of national glory and victory in war is completely offset with the reality of death that looms (Lines 2 and 3- “not substantial things”/There is no armour against fate. “)  We can see this same meaning brought out in the subsequent stanzas.  Of particular note would be the opening lines of the last stanza which compare the glory of human beings to the “withering” of “garlands”  The inclusion of flowers, a natural image, brings light to the process or cyclical pattern of life and death.  This is the theme of the poem, in that death is not something to be feared or something to be fought.  Yet, our understanding as human beings should be designed with the reality of death in mind.  If we see ourselves as ultimately responsible and at the behest of the natural force of death, Shirley is suggesting that maybe the way in which we live our lives would be different. Shirley uses imagey that creates the picture of human glory being temporary and fleeting in the face of death as the penultimate force of creation.  For example, perhaps the wars of state described in the first stanza might not be waged.  The enslavement and murder of fellow human beings in the second stanza could be averted.  The glorification of our triumphs and celebration of our murderous deeds can be seen in a different light within the third stanza.  This theme, or moral, might be where Shirley invokes the appreciation of death in our actions.  In terms of the appreciation of the poem, I think you have to read it over yourself and see if you agree or disagree with what Shirley is saying.

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