In this poem, James Shirley, a seventeenth-century writer primarily known as a dramatist, versifies on a theme popularized in the Middle Ages: the idea that death levels or makes us all equal.
In the first stanza, the narrator focuses on the idea that even kings, the most powerful of all people, must perish like the rest of us, stating,
Death lays his icy hand on kings
In the second stanza, the speaker turns his attention to brave warriors, who, like everyone else, will "creep to death."
Finally, in the last stanza, the speaker warns people not to brag about their great deeds, because we are all destined to end up in the grave. In the final couplet, he notes that only the deeds of those acted justly in life will "smell sweet and blossom" after they are dead and gone.
The poem warns that only our virtue—our acting morally and ethically—matters after our lives have ended.
The poem is, on the whole, a statement about the power and finality of death. There is nothing that can resist its icy grasp or delay its coming. As the title suggests, death does not have favorites and makes us all equal since it does not distinguish between rich or poor, master or servant, good or evil, and young or old—it reaches out to all and affects each one in equal measure.
The first stanza makes it clear that the status we have—because of royal birthright or the high office we hold as leaders of state—has no substance, since it cannot protect against destiny. Death affects everyone in the same manner, and we all turn to dust after we have been interred.
In the second stanza, the speaker emphasizes this point by stating that fighting men may bring renewal in destroying and killing others and thus replacing them with new rulers. No matter how great their resolve, though, they eventually have to succumb to death. Such men must yield to fate, whether they are young or old.
In the final stanza, the speaker addresses the reader directly and exclaims that he should not be boastful of his great accomplishments since he is growing old and, therefore, is close to succumbing to death's overwhelming power. The reader is made aware that even those who have been victorious will find themselves in death's grasp and become victims to its power. It is a certainty that they will have to surrender to death and be entombed.
The last two lines suggest that only the actions of those who have been morally upright will be pleasantly remembered after they have been laid to rest.
As the title suggests, Shirley's poem is a statement about the inevitable finality of death. The opening stanza contrasts the fleeting accomplishments of human beings with the permanence and unavoidable reality of death. The first three lines contrast "the glories of blood and state" with "shadows, and not substantial things." The "armour" designed to protect cannot shield from "fate." The regal and power of "kings" is contrasted to the "scythe and spade" of the undertaker. This first stanza helps to establish the mood of the poem as one of seeing life in the eclipse of death. The fleeting nature of human beings is explored further in the second stanza, with opening lines that contrast the moments where individuals kill in the name of war and honor of the state with the moments when they, themselves, as "pale captives, creep to death." The last stanza concludes the poem with the idea that while individuals can honor themselves for upholding their obligations to nations during wartime, there is little difference between "victor-victim" because of the reach of death, which, in the final analysis, reaches all.