Death the Leveller

by James Shirley

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In "Death the Leveller," what survives death and blossoms in the dust?

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Throughout most of the poem "Death the Leveller," the author James Shirley brings out the point that in death, all people are equal, because death comes to all. "The glories of our blood and state"—in other words, the material possessions, genes we inherit from our parents, and the politics of our countries—are not real and do not protect us from our fates. In death, kings are the same as poor people who wield the "scythe and spade." Soldiers may temporarily win on the battlefield, but in the end, they all also succumb to death.

In the last two lines of the poem, Shirley reveals the only things that can conquer death:

Only the actions of the just

Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

After the seeming futility of the preceding lines, this thought is like a breath of fresh air. The poet proclaims that the actions of the just are able to survive death. These actions are the things that blossom from the dust and create new life. The good deeds that just people perform blossom in that they take root in the hearts of others, who in turn do more good things so that ultimately humankind is made better.

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