(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.
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