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Death the Leveller -- James Shirley

       
(Poem #942) Death the Leveller
 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:
         Sceptre and Crown
         Must tumble down,
   And in the dust be equal made
 With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.

 Some men with swords may reap the field,
   And plant fresh laurels where they kill:
 But their strong nerves at last must yield;
   They tame but one another still:
         Early or late
         They stoop to fate,
 And must give up their murmuring breath
 When they, pale captives, creep to death.

 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.
         Your heads must come
         To the cold tomb:
 Only the actions of the just
 Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.
-- James Shirley
Note: Calchas' Hymn at the Funeral of Ajax, excerpted from "The Contention
  of Ajax and Ulysses"

Like Henley's "Invictus", "Death the Leveller" is a poem that, were it
written today, would probably have been criticised for its emphatic tone,
and for its tendency towards grandiloquence. This is not, however, a failing
in the poem - Shirley's subject is a weighty one, and the poem's tone is
altogether appropriate, the more so in its role as a funeral hymn. It does
lack a certain depth of emotion, however, that one would have expected in a
threnody - the poem works rather better when considered as a dispassionate
reminder that "Death lays his icy hand on kings" then it does as a dirge.

Links:

  Biography:
    http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/shirley/shirleybio.htm

  The Columbia Encyclopedia on Calchas:
    http://www.bartleby.com/65/ca/Calchas.html
  and Ajax:
    http://www.bartleby.com/65/aj/Ajax.html

  Today's poem finds strong echoes in Kipling's "Recessional":
    Minstrels Poem #151

  And the two previous poems in a rather post hoc theme:
    Poem #938, Cicely Herbert, "Everything Changes"
    Poem #940, Rudyard Kipling, "The Palace"

-martin

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