What is the View of Life Expressed in “Death the Leveller”?

It should be agreed that in reading a lot of books pop questions like what is the view of life expressed in “Death the Leveller”?, etc. It is a test of understanding to want to ask yourself that kind of critical question especially when it comes to a poem such as Death the Leveller.

The poem was said to be written by the great James Shirley in a bid to remind the universe about their end, death and the many moral wisdom which its event may teach us. For instance in the excerpt below, it is showing to us that death cannot be avoided no matter who we are as human beings and as so, everyone must die.

Death therefore makes everyone the same since we will all after all be buried under the ground regardless of our class when alive:

Short Analysis of the Poem

As seen dispersed all over the poem, death is a concept that reoccurs in poems from both the past and present. Shirley’s idea concerning egalitarianism is portrayed in this poem. Death is just a metaphor through which he tries to check on the transgression of one’s aspirations.

His scything words do not spare the royals nor the lowly ones. He speaks on the nature of life as well as death. According to him, everyone is treated similarly. The difference in respect to their social status is insubstantial. In order to get out of the cold clutches of death, one has to do things that matter to humankind.

Shirley’s poetic persona refers to the inheritance of nobility and the royal aura. They are nothing but shadows of reality. None can defend oneself from the blow of the warrior named “Death”. Each person, be it a king or a poor farmer, has to come under the sickle’s compass of fate.

Life Inferences from the Poem

Mortal beings crave fame and struggle throughout their lives in order to leave a mark behind. No matter how hard they try, the things that are done for egotistical satisfaction do not last long. They fade like the water of a pond in scorching summer. There comes another person who again fills this pond in his life’s monsoons. This cycle goes on. The pond is permanent, not its water. Fame is exactly similar to the water in a pond.

Shirley similarly uses some interesting ideas in order to bring home the fact that death is the ultimate leveller of all inequalities. Firstly, he refers to “garlands” on one’s “brow”. It is a hint at worldly achievements. According to the poet, those achievements are insubstantial. None boast of those mighty achievements after the person’s death.

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Wild spirits are tamed by the mighty holds of Death. Not only that, they have to stoop to fate and accept what is already written.

At last, the murmur of one’s breath is muted when they creep to death as “pale captives”. It is important to note the idea behind some specific words. For example, the “murmuring breath” is a reference to old age when a person loses the ability to speak.

As a person turns older and nears his impending death, his skin turns pale. Shirley connects this paleness of an old man’s skin to that of a captive, deprived of food. In this way, he tries to say that all human beings become “pale captives” of Death in their old age.

Warriors fight relentlessly for the sake of worldly fame, referred to by the term “laurels”. While farmers work day and night for the sake of keeping themselves alive. In this poem, the poet is sympathetic toward the contribution of the poor farmers. He is critical of the aspirations of the people from the upper section of society such as kings and noblemen.

Finally, the poet pointedly infers that at the ultimate moment, everyone is going to turn into dust. Once boastful of their power and authority, the kings lay alongside their subjects in the dust after their death. In the last line, the poet refers to the poor farmers by referring to the instruments they use. It includes the “crookèd scythe” and “spade”.


The central idea of “Death the Leveller” concerns the egalitarian nature of death. Throughout the poem, Shirley depicts how Death makes everyone submit to his authority. There is literally no one who can postpone the event. It is the ultimate truth in a man’s life.

According to the poet, worldly glory is insubstantial or temporary. What remains is one’s just actions. Apart from that, everything returns to dust, be it one’s haughty achievements or glory on the battlefield. This poem also taps on the themes of virtue, the inevitability of death, fame, and fatalism.

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