“Death is a leveller”, this statement implies that death makes everyone equal or ‘level’. In the poems, “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley and “Death the Leveller” by James Shirley, they each portray this in similar ways. Each refer to this statement by using the notion of a powerful figure, who would seem to be ‘invincible’, forgotten through time, hence forth, making them equal to people who would have achieved very little within their lifetime.
In “Ozymandias”, Percy Bysshe Shelley relates a description of a mysterious land laid to waste. The speaker recalls having met a traveller “from an antique land,” who told him a story about the ruins of a statue in the desert of his native country. At the very beginning of the poem, Shelley creates a remote landscape, unknown by many therefore distancing the narration. The title “Ozymandias” refers to the great Egyptian King Rameses II. This unfamiliar name gives the impression to the reader that it will about someone anonymous though during his life, he would have been very influential on the world around him.
“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies” denotes the face of the statue damaged and worn throughout time, metaphorically, like his power lost though time. Shelley then describes the face of the statue more, ” whose frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” implies that throughout this rein over Egypt, he was a forceful and merciless ruler and wanted to be known for that and sculptor himself, also makes show it is understood. “Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things” explains to the reader that even though part of the statue has survived the abuse from nature, it still means nothing as it stands in a desolate landscape undiscovered by many. This links back to his reputation’s destruction over time. However, Shelley adds “The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed” implying that even though he may have shunned those less powerful than him, in his heart, he did want them to survive in this ruling.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
In this quotation, Shelley emphasises greatly the irony of this message scribed into his statue. Within Ozymandias’ time, this statue would have represented the fear he caused to his people and the power he possessed over them. Yet now, it lies crumbled and forgotten in the middle of a desert inhabited by no one with his city in ruins around him. Shelley expresses how even the mighty have no power of death and how they are forgotten. The following line says “Nothing besides remains”, as if Shelley mocks his once mighty power with a simple yet painfully truthful statement, showing that it is inevitable that nothing will make him remembered again.
“Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Shelley mentions the sand as level and stretching far away. Sand is related to hourglasses, used to measure time. He also says the sand is ‘level’ meaning that you could far around you and see nothing but the isolated environment around you. This links in with time making everything equal and making eventually forgotten, and how each piece of sand is indefinable from the other. Alliteration is used to create an effective rhythm within the last lines of the stanza. It creates a feeling of total certainty that this is how this statue, like Ozymandias’ reputation, will stand until it is worn away to become another grain of sand. This poem was written in the age when Napoleon Bonaparte was at his height of power, but Shelley believed this would eventually been his fate.
‘Death the Leveller’ was written by James Shirley the time when King Charles was reined over England. In that time period, many people did not wish to have a king; therefore, King Charles was eventually beheaded. The purpose of the poem was a warning to the King, showing that he had no escape from death, even with his courage a huge army. Shirley begins “The glories of our blood and state are shadows, not substantial things” denotes that how no matter how important your blood is or how powerful you are in life, death will make you as meaningful as a shadow, forgotten and neglected. Shirley then states how there is “no armour against fate” meaning that death is something you cannot escape, regardless of who you are within life. Shirley also makes death human like by saying it lays its “icy hand on kings”
“Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down”
A sceptre is like a staff, which is held by a king and obviously a crown, which is a symbol of their high authority. The use of the word “must” denotes that it was fate for him to die and the word “tumble” gives the impression of a long, fast fall from power. “Down” also means to the level of the poor who caused him to be beheaded. Shirley then continues to suggest how death is natural and linked to the infamous grim reaper, “with the poor crooked scythe and spade”. A scythe is a harvesting instrument which is known to be wielded by the grim reaper and spade is related to digging holes, hence forth, digging graves. This connects to how death is just apart of life, in which even those not close with nature, will endure at a predestined point in their lives.
The next stanza describes a battle possibly within a field harvested by the poor. The line “And plant fresh laurels where they kill” signifies that as people die, those that are alive move on, forgetting about those who were heroic. “Early or late, they stoop to fate” which basically means, death will catch up to you sooner or later. The word “stoop” gives the impression that they lower themselves to death whether it is against their own will or not. This makes death a leveller as it makes no exceptions. Shirley further describes the victims as “pale captives” that “creep to death”. Pale captives could mean two things, it could refer to the idea of death making us colourless and trapped as you cannot escape from death or it could signify the King before he was executed. To creep to death gives the feeling of the victim slowly passing away into deaths hands, a way which nearly everyone dies.
The third stanza indicates the irony of the importance of power after death. “The garlands wither on your brow” signifies how a person would wither and die like nature. Also, the change from third person to second person. Shirley wants you to feel what it must be like to be close to death and how anyone would “boast no more your mighty deeds” as in the face of death, these achievements are worthless, levelling out those who reside on the street to those who rule over countries. “Upon Death’s purple altar now” implies that death will place you where it wishes; in addition, the colour purple is related to royalty, which mocks his current status. “Your heads must come to the cold tomb” means that right there, right then, he is to die unavoidably at the cold hands of death. Shirley finishes, “Only the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in their dust” denoting that if the King had perhaps stepped down, he would have lived longer and therefore, be remembered for longer. In each stanza, Shirley uses rhyming couplets e.g. “Early or late, they stoop to fate” which in literature, is recognized as the basic and decided truth. This associates back to death being a leveller as ‘his’ decision is final.
In conclusion, “Ozymandias” and “Death the Leveller” each use death to illustrate that everyone, in time, no matter how mighty or great they may be, will eventually succumb to the sardonic natural process of death in their lives. Using powerful figures to support this view, they link how death and nature are corresponding and even those who are born great will surrender to it ultimately. This quality makes everyone and everything in life similar and making death a leveller.