James Shirley begins his poem “Death the Leveller” with a metaphor. “The glories of our blood and state,” he notes, “Are shadows, not substantial things.” Notice how he compares the glories of human beings and nations to mere shadows. These glories will not last, the poet implies. Fate will blow them away, and they will fade as quickly as shadows.
This opening metaphor sets the stage for the rest of the poem, which focuses on how death comes to all people. Kings will fall just the same as shepherds and farmers, the poet correctly asserts. Royalty is not immune to death. Men may kill each other with swords on the field of battle, but the victors themselves will be laid low by death. Their garlands of victory will one day wither on their brows, and they will no longer be able to boast of their “mighty deeds.” All of these will be mere shadows as death approaches. They will no longer be substantial. They will save no one from death or the tomb.
There is, however, one hope that some human actions will survive after death. These are the “actions of the just,” the good things that people do, all the kind, loving, generous, gracious acts they perform throughout their lives. While all else is mere shadow, these “smell sweet and blossom” even in the dust of death.