Death the Leveller

by James Shirley

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What does "victor-victim" mean in "Death the Leveller" and how does it relate to the theme?

Quick answer:

The theme of the poem "Death the Leveller" is the inevitability and inescapability of death. The phrase "victor-victim" encapsulates the idea that even those who are victorious in life must inevitably become victims of death.

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In the third line of the poem, the speaker declares, "There is no armour against fate." The meaning of this is that nobody can protect themselves against death, which is everybody's inescapable fate. The speaker says that even the greatest man must succumb to his fate. He says too that all types of men, whether they be rich or poor, brave or cowardly, will be made equal in death.

In the second half of the poem, the speaker says that the "garlands" that great men and heroes wear on their heads will inevitably "wither"; thus, he says, there is no point "boast[ing]" of one's "mighty deeds," because even heroes will wither and die. The speaker describes "Death's purple altar" and invites the reader to "See where the victor-victim bleeds." The "victor-victim" represents all men who might be victors and heroes in life but who also must inevitably become "victims" of death, sacrificed like everybody else upon death's "altar."

At the end of the poem, the speaker does offer some hope that death doesn't have to be a definitive and unconquerable end. He says that "Only the actions of the just ... blossom in the dust." In other words, those who do good deeds in the course of their lives can expect the consequences of those deeds to multiply and "blossom" after their deaths. In this way, through the consequences of their good deeds, some men may, in a way, live on after death.

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