Central Idea

Death is a great leveller. It is a universal truth. It comes to all and spares none. The might and weak, the rich and the poor cannot escape the icy hands of death. Therefore, it is useless to boast of the glories of one’s birth, caste, religion, and position. The only thing which remains after death are just and noble deeds. So, man is remembered by his good actions. Therefore, we should always be right in our actions.

Summary of Death the Leveller

Death the Leveller” is a wonderful poem by James Shirley. This poem tells us that mortality is a power that haunts any human being. It’s what helps readers care about their brief life on Earth. Death levels everyone in this world. He’s treating us the same. Death is still going to hover over us. The theme of this poem is that death is a fact that everybody can face in their lives. This poem lets the reader embrace this fact without any defence.

In the opening lines of the first stanza, the poet tells us of the futility of the glory of war and victory. The kings and the peasants are reduced to ashes. Death is indeed imminent for all, and it always serves as a great leveller. The glory, our birth and our state are just like shadows, not substantial, not concrete. They’re not going to last long. We can not avoid the cold hand of death. He would not deem someone to be a high birth or low birth. And we must be gracious enough to acknowledge the truth of life.

Some men fight bravely and capture lands, destroy people and become triumphant. But sooner or later, all their strength is lost. By the end of the day, they became prisoners of death. The successes and glories of one’s life can linger only until the moment of death. The honour and pride of men winds up in the cemetery. Any earthly success has been short-lived. People can only remember our good deeds and our acts. These good deeds and acts are like roses. Thus, the author implicitly encourages the reader to do virtuous deeds. All that do good things are going to have a nice smell. Positive deeds are blossoming in the ashes.

The poem has used fine imagery. There are figures of speech like personification as in “Death lays his icy hands on kings”, and metonymy is used in “sceptre and crown” and ‘scythe and spade’. Oxymoron is used in ‘victor-victim bleeds’ and metaphor is used in the line, ‘glories are shadows’ and actions of the just to flowers. The poem employs a beautiful rhyme scheme ababccdd.

Thus all the images and devices used by the poet provide a lot of clarity for the readers to realize the message of the poem. It applies to everybody to lead a good life doing good deeds. In my opinion, the poet has succeeded in making the point, “Death is the Leveller”.

Detailed Summary (Stanza-Wise)

“Death the Leveller” is a poem which is written by the famous Elizabethan poet, James Shirley. James Shirley gave an apt title for this poem. The title, “Death the Leveller”, suggests that death can equalize everyone. In front of death, everyone is equal. No one can escape from the hands of death. Death does not give importance to one’s wealth, achievement, positions and status. That is why the poet calls “Death” as a “Leveller”.

Stanza -1

In the first stanza, James Shirley says that “Death” does not care about whether an individual comes from an aristocratic or royal family, and one’s position, status and achievement. These are temporary things and are insignificant. No one can escape from the hands of “Fate”. The “armour” which protects a king or a soldier from an attack becomes powerless in front of “Fate”. Death takes both the lives of kings and farmers. Death does not discriminate anyone on any criteria. Everyone will die and become dust one day. In this poem, the poet associates “kings” with “Sceptre and Crown”, and farmers with “scythe and spade”.

Stanza – 2

In the second stanza, the poet tells people with power achieve many things. For instance, kings with swords will conquer new places. He will exert his dominance over the newly conquered place. For achieving victory, sometimes, the kings have to kill some men. Even if how powerful they are, they will face death sooner or later. They cannot defeat Death with their swords. Ultimately, they become powerless like a prisoner who is living in a jail.

Stanza -3

In the third stanza, the poet tells that even if a man boasts his “mighty deeds”, achievements and the rewards which he has got in his entire life, those will disappear once he leaves from this world. Death does not pay attention to these. Even a great victorious man becomes a “victim” when he faces “Death”. He cannot defeat “Death”. In the end, all become part of the earth and become dust. According to the poet, what remains is one’s good actions which one has done in one’s entire life. People will remember an individual through his actions even if he is buried in the “cold tomb”. So his action will give him fame.

As the poem ends, we get an image of a lamb who is talking to an altar for doing sacrifice to please the Gods. This kind of ritual is usually practised by pagans. The sacrificial lamb does not know that it will die soon. In the poem, the man will also sacrifice his life in front of “Death’s purple altar”.

Themes of Death the Leveller

Man is mortal: The theme of the poem is that death is something that should not be apprehended or fought but we as humans should understand that death is a reality and that we should always keep that in mind. Should we find ourselves and the feet of the natural force of death, Shirley is proposing that we should live our lives differently as to not fear death when it comes for us. He is using imagery that forms the depiction of human glory being limited and hasty in the last moments of our lives, before death takes us away, such as in the first stanza, the way the state of war was described might not have ever happened if people knew that they were mortal and would, too, someday die.The point that Shirley stresses again and again in this poem is that man is mortal. Neither will individual men survive nor will the human as a species. Is man then to not leave any trace of his existence on earth? He certainly is. This trace left by man will be in the form of his great deeds. Man’s noble deeds are the only way in which he will remain immortal.

Dust thou art, to dust returnest: The Bible says that man has evolved out of the stuff of the earth, out of dust as it were. And ultimately, man must return to dust as well. That is, man must be buried in the very earth that gave birth to him. Shirley does not use these very words in “Death the Leveller”. However, this phrase of the Bible could not have escaped his mind when he says in the last stanza when he says that all men’s heads must touch the cold tomb at some point of time or the other.

Style of The Poem

The rhyme scheme is set throughout the poem of A-B-A-B-C-C-D-D. Shirley uses an oxymoron with the addition of flowers, a symbol of nature and peace, to bring light to the pessimistic sequence of death he has displayed throughout the poem, creating a theme. He is using imagery that forms the depiction of human glory being limited and hasty in the last moments of our lives. Death is personified in the poem.

Justification of Title

The first four lines of each stanza address the notion of human triumph and the notions of man-made success. They also identify in both of these settings that the shadow of death looms. With the declaration that death is the endpoint for all we do, hence the title, “The Great Leveller,” the second four lines of each stanza undercuts all human progress. Shirley claims that this is the essential component in the poem’s symbolic sense that death is something that plagues mortals and is inevitable.

Tone of the Poem

This poem is a dirge spoken at the
funeral of Ajax and taken from Shirley’s
play ‘The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses.’ The death of the mighty hero Ajax makes the poet aware of the essential mortality of humanity. The tone is resigned and fatalistic; death is the controller of all destinies and makes everyone equal eventually. The king and the peasant, the soldier and the slave – all are subdued by death.
There is no reason against Fate….
Early or late
They stoop to fate…

The overarching tone of “Death the Leveller” is one of fatalism as the poet stresses the inevitability of death. However, there is a sense of poetic justice at the end of the first stanza when the poet shows how kings are farmers are made equal in death. In the second stanza, the tone subtly changes from one of valiant victory in the battle to that of piteous surrender to Death. Only in the last two lines of the poem is there a tone of hope and optimism when the poet asserts that man’s good deeds will never die.

Poetic Devices in Death The Leveller

Rhyme scheme

Each of the three stanzas in “Death the Leveller” follows the same rhyme scheme – ABABCCDD.

Metaphor in Stanza -1

This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of metaphor in lines 1-2 when he compares all the glorious events in man’s life with shadows, since both of these do not have any material presence or value in the greater scheme of things.

Metaphor in Stanza -2

In this stanza, the poet uses the device of metaphor in line 2 when he compares getting fame and glory with planting laurels.


This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of personification in line 3 with respect to Fate, and again in line 4 with respect to Death. Both fate and Death are visible figures in the poet’s imagination.

Transferred epithet

This rhetorical device is used when an emotion is attributed to a non-living thing after being displaced from a person, most often the poet himself or herself. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of transferred epithet in line 8 when he calls the scythe and the spade “poor”. Of course, it is not that they are actually financially unstable, but that the people who hold them cannot afford anything better.


This rhetorical device consists of the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant. In this stanza, the poet uses the device of metonymy in line 1 when he uses the word “field” to mean wars which are fought on battlefields.

About The Author – James Shirley

Shirley was a respected playwright who
survived many upheavals in his lifetime: a personal religious conversion to Catholicism, the English Civil War, the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell, outbreaks of the Plague and exile in Ireland. He and his wife died as a result of privations following the Great Fire of London in 1666. He was born in London in 1596 and after a good education, he took Holy Orders in 1620. His first published work was a romantic poem in 1618, generally agreed to have been entitled ‘Narcissus’. However, in 1625 he converted to Catholicism and had to resign his headmaster’s post in St. Alban’s Grammar School. In order to earn a living for himself and his wife he turned to the theatre and began writing plays. His work was influenced by the work of Fletcher and Beaumont. In 1636 he went to Dublin where he wrote for the Werburgh Street Theater, reputed to be the first theatre in Ireland. By 1642, when Cromwell closed all the theatres in England, Shirley had written 36 plays. In his time, he had a good reputation as a dramatist. His plays were witty and satirical, the themes relating to current styles and attitudes. His poetry was less well known, although this poem, taken from one of his plays, has survived the passing of time. Some of his plays continued to be produced in the 18th century.

Questions and Answers of Death The Leveller

Q. What is the theme or central idea of the poem?


Write the summary of the poem in your own words.

Ans:- The poem tells us that death treats all at par. It spares none. It is a great leveller and it does not have any prejudice for or against a king or a pauper, the mighty or the weak, the
rich or the poor. All bow before Death’s power. Everyone has to yield and submit before the might of Death. Only the good deeds of a person are remembered after death.

Extract 1

The glories of our blood and state

Are shadows not substantial things;

There is no armour against fate;

Death lays his icy hands on kings.

1. Name the poem and the poet.

Ans:- The name of the poem is Death the Leveller and the name of the poet is James Shirley.

2. What are not substantial things?

Ans:- The glories of our blood and state are not substantial things.

3. Explain the last line.

Ans:- Death spares none, even they are kings also.

Extract 2

Sceptre and crown

Must tumble down,

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

1. What are sceptre and crown symbol of?

Ans:- They are the symbols of kings and rulers.

2. What happens to the sceptre and the crown?

Ans:- They mix with the dust in the end.

3. Who are made equal and with whom?

Ans:- Kings are made equal with the poor.

Extract 3

Some men with swords may reap the field,

And plant fresh laurels where they kill;

But their strongs nerves, at last, must yield;

They tame but one another still.

1. What do some men do with swords?

Ans:- Some men win battles with swords.

2. What do they fail to do?

Ans:- They fail to win over death.

3. Explain the last line.

Ans:- Some men can kill others, but they can’t kill death.

Extract 4

Early or late

They stoop to fate,

And must give up their murmuring breath

When they pale captives creep to death.

1. Who stoop to death?

Ans:- All men stoop to death.

2. Which two words show that men don’t want to die?

Ans:- Murmuring Breath.

3. What is meant by ‘pale captives’?

Ans:- The persons who are going to die.

Extract 5

Your heads must come

To the cold tomb:

Only the actions of the just

Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.

1. What is that which must happen?

Ans:- Everyone has to die in the end.

2. What is ‘cold tomb’ a symbol of?

Ans:- ‘Cold tomb’ is a symbol of death.

3. What idea does the poet want to convey?

Ans:- Only the good deeds of a person are remembered after death.

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