“Death is a Leveller” Show how this idea is reflected in the two poems “Death the Leveller” by James Shirley and “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Some people, as history portrays, achieve great things in life, some do not. What we achieve or what we do not achieve in life is unimportant because eventually death reduces us all to the same level
” Death the Leveller” by James Shirley was written around the time of the English Civil War. The poem makes reference to victors of a battle who are eventually reduced to the level of their defeated foes. The poem also makes reference to the death of a king. ” Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, was written around the time Napoleon, when he was at the peak of his power. This poem could be seen as a warning to Napoleon, warning him that eventually all his glory will end.
Both poems indicate that death will end our glories or victories, that death is a leveller.
Death the Leveller” could be telling us that we cannot battle death. We see this in Stanza 1:
“The glories of our blood and hate
Are shadows not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate.”
These definite statements tell us that no matter what we do fate will conquer us, make us all equal.
“Death” is personified in “Death the leveller.” Shirley uses personification as an effective way to describe the power of “death,” this also strengthens “death” by giving it human form:
“Death lays his icy hands on kings”
This line could also be showing that even great kings will fall to the “icy hands” of “death”. Shirley enforces this idea by writing
“Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down”
In Stanza 2 we see the ideas of military and agriculture. We see this in the opening lines, which show that all from soldiers to farmers will be levelled:
“Some men with swords may reap the field
And plant fresh laurels where they kill”
The words “reap”, “field” and “plant” give us an agricultural image, which contrasts with “swords”, and “kill” which imply military. This could mean that all from men to women, soldiers to farmers, rich to poor will be levelled and equalised by death.
Shirley also tells us that death is inevitable in the line:
“Early or late
They stoop to fate”
These lines also support the lines earlier in the poem that
“There is no armour against fate”
Shirley metaphorically states that victory passes in time. We see this in the lines:
“The garlands wither on your brow
Then boast no more your mighty deeds”
These lines are focusing on the point: What we achieve or what we do not achieve in life is unimportant because eventually death reduces us all to the same level.
Shirley also hints at the death of Charles I. Shirley uses “purple” to emphasise royalty and “altar” which suggests sacrifice or death. This once again explains that even the most powerful of people are only mortal and can be made equal.
Shirley ends the poem on a more positive note:
“Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust”
These lines state that only if your achievements were good and just, will you be remembered long after your dust.
“Ozymandias” uses Rameses an ancient pharaoh as an example that “Death is a leveller”. The poem tells us about a statue of a man who thought he was all-powerful but was beaten by death and time.
Shelley uses the “vast” and “trunkless” statue as a way to describe what he thinks Napoleon will become. What was once a grand statue and a great leader has been destroyed by time, like Napoleon will be levelled by death. This shows us that Shelley believed that death would render us all equal.
Shelley achieves distancing of the narrative by introducing a “traveller from an antique land” who actually saw the statue the poet did not. The poet is distanced from the subject, which diminishes its importance.
Shelley uses the statue to describe it’s subject. The “vast”, “Half sunk” and “shattered visage” is used to show how “Ozymandias” is now. Once great, “Ozymandias” is portrayed as an all-powerful being, who has been reduced to the same level as his people/followers. The “king of kings” “Ozymandias” was defeated by mere death.
Shelley points out that “Ozymandias'” true personality is still “stamped on these lifeless things”. This could be suggesting that no matter how the statue is supposed to be seen, “Ozymandias'” true colours are portrayed.
Shelley shows the selfishness of “Ozymandias” during the poem.
“The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed”
This explains that no matter how “Ozymandias” punished his people, he fed them to keep them alive so they could worship him and to make him seem that he was better than someone else. However it was all in vain
Shelley shows us that death destroys us in the lines
“‘My name is Ozymandias king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.”
This tells us that no matter how “Mighty” “Ozymandias” thought he was, he was defeated by death. None of his works are visible any more. They have all been destroyed
Shelley introduces “sands” in the final line of the poem. This suggests ‘sands of time’, telling us we are all destroyed by time.
“Ozymandias” and “Death the Leveller” both have their own styles but they both convey the message that we will all be levelled by death. We see that both poems make reference to dust or sand, which in the poems represent death.
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