Death the Leveller

by James Shirley

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What does "Some men with swords may reap the field" mean in "Death the Leveller"?

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In "Death the Leveller," James Shirley reminds us that death ultimately brings everyone down to the same level. It doesn't matter how rich or powerful you are: whether you're a king, a queen, or a great general in charge of thousands of soldiers, one day you will die, just like everyone else.

The lines "Some men with swords may reap the field / And plant fresh laurels where they kill" refer to how brave soldiers are often rewarded for their heroic endeavors on the field of battle. And on that field, they can "reap," or obtain, something, like how one reaps a harvest from a field of wheat, for example. In this case, what is being reaped is victory, as symbolized by laurels, which are traditionally associated with triumph and victory.

Yet even these brave souls must one day die. Their "strong nerves," forged in the heat of many a hard battle, will eventually succumb to fate—the fate that awaits us all. In the final analysis, the glories of battle, the glories of "blood and state," are not important. They are mere "shadows" and "not substantial things," and they pale into insignificance when we consider the inescapable fact that one day we will leave this mortal world behind.

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