»  James Shirley's "The Glories of Our Blood and State"


The Glories of Our Blood and State

by James Shirley, 1596-1666


•  Background

These verses close Shirley's play "The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses."

The contention in the play's title is for the armor of the dead Achilles during the Trojan War, as told in Sophocles' play Ajax. Ajax lost that contention; Ulysses got the armor. In his rage at having lost, Ajax did things for which he later felt shame — so much shame he committed suicide.

These lines at the end of Shirley's play are spoken by the prophet Calchas at Ajax's funeral.

Shirley was a successful playwright through the 1620s and 1630s. In 1642, however, as the English Civil War got under way in earnest, Parliament closed all the theaters. There was some scattered defiance, but for the most part theaters remained closed until the late 1650s. There was certainly no living to be made as a playwright. Shirley survived on schoolmastering, writing textbooks, and some patronage.

These lines were printed in 1659, so presumably Shirley was anticipating a full reopening of the theaters. Still, he never wrote another play after "Ajax and Ulysses," although he lived on for some years following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the revival of staged plays.

Harvey's Oxford Companion to English Literature (second edition, 1937) tells us that:

He died as a result of terror and exposure on the occasion of the Great Fire of London [in September 1666.]


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

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.