Death the Leveller

Wong Heu Wai (Wu Miao)  

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 crooked 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

I came across this poem when I was in secondary school. The language written is simple and clear. The title itself points out the objective of the poem – be humble.

The poet personifies Death laying his dead icy hand on all levels and ranks of people (from Kings to merchants to labourers). No matter what status one belongs to or how one is being looked upon in society and however glamorous or mundane we live our lives, everyone comes to a common ending – all of us must face death. Death is as much a reality as birth, growth and ageing – it is the one certainty of life. Upon death, all are placed on the same level in status, regardless of race, language or religion.

Wealth and status are transient, not substantial things which cannot be brought along once we are dead. Only the memories of one’s good deeds or selfish acts are remembered by certain people. If we explore further into the meaning of the poem, it is actually trying to convey to us that we should not be arrogant nor be prejudiced against one another. This will cause ill feeling and hurt to others (anger, greed and hatred are seeds of sufferings). Besides, a person cannot feel truly happy unless the surrounding people are also happy, hence the practice on equanimity, generosity and be thoughtful to others are some ways for a better living.

Subsequently, the concept of “I” and “mine” will slowly be removed. Practising these qualities do not cost anything, instead, it helps to build a better relationship between ourselves and those around us. As a result, we will be more at ease with ourselves and others. A gentle reminder to all out there – it is not necessary to feel high and mighty nor is it necessary to feel inferior. Be a wholesome, humble self and you will be on your way to Enlightenment!

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