SUMMARY: Death the Leveller by James Shirley is a reminder to the readers that death is one day going to take everyone. In the first stanza, the poet says that every achievement that a person can achieve in his life is temporary and there is nothing that one can do to protect him/her from death. Death will fall on a rich king and on a poor man equally.
In the second stanza, the poet says that the success earned by great warriors by doing courageous works mean nothing before death. Even the strongest of conquerors one day kneel down and is defeated by the power of Death. Sooner or later, everyone dies.
In the third stanza, the poet pictures death as a force that brings equality. Those who won and those who lose are made equal by Death because death is the ultimate equalizer. Every person goes to the grave in the end. The last two lines say that if there is anything that is going to last after a person has died, it is the good work that he does while he is alive and people remember them for those good work.
Read the lines from the poem and answer the questions that follow:
1. The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
a) Why does the poet say that the glories are shadows?
b) Explain the significance of the line ‘Death lays his icy hand on kings’.
c) Does death lay his hands only on kings?
d) What is the figure of speech used in this line?
Ans: a) By glories and shadows, the poet wants to send the message that no matter how great our achievements are, in the end, or at death, nothing matters. The glories mean nothing.
b) The significance of the line is that death discriminates none and doesn’t leave out even kings. In death everybody is equal. Wealth, religion, caste, class, etc. mean nothing to death.
c) No, death doesn’t lay his hands only on kings. Death befalls on everyone equally regardless of being a king or a pauper.
d) The figure of speech used in this line is a metaphor. In this line, death is personified as a living entity with icy cold hands who makes everyone equal when he touches them.
2. The garlands wither on your brow;
Then boast no more your mighty deeds!
upon Death’s purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
a) The poet cautions us not to boast of our mighty deeds. Why does he do so?
b) What is the significance of the colour purple? Why is death’s altar described as purple?
c) Explain ‘victor-victim’.
Ans: a) The poet cautions us not to boast of our mighty deeds because all the mighty deeds of ours mean nothing to death eventually and when death comes, he isn’t going to take note of our deeds and our deeds aren’t going to save us.
b) In many cultures, purple is a colour used during funerals. The poet described the altar of death as purple for the same reason.
c) In the poem, ‘victor-victim’ literally means people who succeeded in their lives and people who failed to find success. He used the expression in the poem to depict equality of both in front of death.
B. Think and Answer
1. Does the title of the poem give an indication about the theme of the poem? Discuss.
Ans: The title “death the leveller” is significant. In the poem, the poet tries to convey the message that death is the ultimate equaliser. It equalizes the difference between the rich and the poor and fills the gap between the victor and the victim. All are equal before death and no one is Immortal. The poem says that death is inevitable. A person cannot be spared by death on the basis of his high birth or high status. Even the great warriors who defeated others and earned name and fame, cannot defeat death. They become captive in the hands of death and creep to tombs. Thus, death is a great leveller.
2. Do you agree with the poet’s view that it is futile to take pride in one’s birth and state? Why/Why not?
Ans: Yes, I do agree with the view that it is futile to take pride in one’s birth or state because just taking birth in a high family does not reflect the real characteristics of a person. Taking pride in one’s birth or state just depicts the ignorance of that person. Further, the poet reminds that these things are insignificant and like shadows which remain till the person is alive and there is no armour against fate. He says that every mighty king and his staffs have to come to dust and death lays his icy hands on every man irrespective of caste, creed, status etc.
Extra questions and answers
1. How does the poem remind the readers of the futility of taking pride anyone’s birth and state? Why does the poet feel so?
Ans: The poet reminds the readers that taking pride in one’s birth or state is insignificant and these are like shadows which remain till the person is alive. He adds that when death comes, death really does not care about these things.
The poet feels so because there is no armour against fate. He says that every mighty king and his staff have to come to dust and death lays his icy hands on every man irrespective of caste, creed, status etc.
2. What are the two classes of people that the poet talks about in the second last stanza? What does he want them about?
Ans: The two classes of people that the poet talks about the second last stanza are the victor and the victim. He warns them that they would not be spared by death and both of them will bleed on the purple altar of death.
3. What does the poet say about strength and courage?
Ans: About strength and courage, the poet says that great warriors can win name and fame with the help of their strength and courage but ultimately the strongest and most courageous kneel down in front of the power of death and they are reduced to dust.
4. What is the poet’s underlying message in the poem?
Ans: The poet’s underlying message in the poem is that death is certain and everyone has to die one day. But the only thing that remains immortal is the noble deeds of a person.
Describe the character of death as presented by the poet by selecting words and phrases from the poem.
About death, the poet says that death does not discriminate between the rich and the poor. The glories of our blood and state cannot save us from death. The great warriors or courageous men may earn name and fame through their deeds but they are bound to creep to death. Both the victor and the victim are sacrificed upon the purple alter of death. Death is certain, impartial and powerful as stated in the poem.
5. Why is the final couplet separated from the rest of the poem?
Ans: The final couplet is separated from the rest of the poem because the idea in the couplet is quite different from the other stanzas. In the above stanzas, the poet depicts the power of death and says that everyone is powerless before death. But in the last two lines, the poet says that noble deeds of a person remain immortal so death may destroy a person but not his noble deeds through which a person can become immortal though he is not physically present.
This poem highlights the uselessness of worldly power. What is it that cannot be snatched by death?
The things which cannot be snatched by death are the noble deeds of a person. They always remain immortal. The noble deeds of a person are like sweet-scented flowers that spread the message of nobility in the same manner as the flowers spread their fragrance in the air.
6. Which stands in the poem “Death the Leveller” you like the best? Why?
Ans: I like the last stanza the most because it spreads the message of nobility. The poet says in these two lines that the noble deeds of a person remain immortal and a person survives even after his death. Death can destroy everything but it becomes powerless before the noble actions of a person.
Ron’e Dutta is the Co-Founder and Editor of Online Free Notes. He is a journalist, a blogger, a creative writer, and a teacher. He is currently writing his first thriller novel on time-travelling. Read the prologue of the novel here. Connect with him on social media.