Death the Leveller

by James Shirley

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What lesson do we get from the poem "Death the Leveller" by James Shirley?

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The idea of a “leveller” can be understood literally and figuratively in James Shirley’s poem. To support his underlying message that death ultimately takes every living person, the poet offers a number of situations. Each of them supports the idea that human attitudes that place material well-being or social rank about good behavior are wrong. In the end, death will take all of us. The powerful images that the poet uses include Death’s “icy hand,” which he places on everyone, including kings as their scepters and crown fall like every other symbol of rank. He also evokes an altar, draped in the purple mourning color, where everyone will finally place their head.

The flattening action of leveling is accentuated in the farming metaphor that Shirley uses. Where a warrior might be deemed super because of his bravery fighting in battle, the poet suggests otherwise. A warrior is not actually the one who cuts his enemy down with his sword: it is Death. A person acts only as Death’s instrument. Shirley also suggests that the farmer, a person of lower rank, can be considered superior to a warrior because he grows food that feeds others.

A sensory image of smell, associated with flowers, is presented as a contrast to the equality that brings everyone down. The “just” will create hope or may experience spiritual rebirth, like blossoms in spring, through their faith and good actions.

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