A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: How to Live Life

A Psalm of life writer Wadsworth

A Psalm of Life is a didactic poem written by one of the most celebrated poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem was first published in 1838 in the New York Magazine and this poem is also referred to as “A Song of Life.” The poem is often subtitled as “What the Heart of a Young Man said to the Psalmist,” and in the later sections of the analysis, we’ll explain why. The later section of the article will deal with the explanation of A Psalm of Life, it’s symbolism, meaning, figure of speech and questions and answers about the poem. H.W Longfellow was promised a payment of $5 for publication of this poem, but was never paid. Here is the poem, A Psalm of Life. Give it a read.

A Psalm of Life
What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
   “Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
   And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
   And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
   Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Finds us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
   In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
   Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
   With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
   Learn to labor and to wait.
 

About A Psalm of Life

The poem, as you can see from the first read, is a didactic one. Didactic means that the poem or verse is trying to instill some thought, some lessons into the minds of the reader. Hence it is aptly named, “A Psalm of Life.” The poem is also often subtitled as “What the Heart of a Young man said to the Psalmist” because this poem is about going against some of the teachings of the Psalms of the Old Testament. The poem is narrated by an apparently young man who is questioning the teachings of the Psalmist. He declares them to be wrong and provides the correct way of living the life, with reasons.

A Psalm of Life
A Young Longfellow

The poem tells the reader to look at life with positivity and hopefulness. It asks the readers to throw away the docile, traditional biblical doctrine of life that has been taught and live life to the fullest. It tells us that we can be more than what we are, everyday. 

The poem was inspired by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the conversations with Cornelius Conway Felton. It is said that the death of his wife also played a lot of influence in the creation of this poem. Now let’s look at the detailed analysis and explanation of the poem, A Psalm of Life.

Stanza 1 – The Anti-Pessimistic View.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
   “Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
   And things are not what they seem.

The beginning of the poem starts with the life that denies the pessimistic view of the Psalmist. The poet refuses to believe in the negative view of life. He asks not to tell him this pessimistic perception of life in mournful numbers. Mournful numbers here indicate the verses of Psalm that tells that life is a hollow dream. He denies that life is a meaningless dream and is filled with misfortunes.

For the soul is dead that slumbers; The use of metaphor here tells that the soul which sleeps is as good as dead. A sleeping soul is the one who is not living fully to its desires. The soul which aimlessly follows what it is told is the soul which slumbers, and according to the narrator, it is as good as dead. The poet says that life is not what the sorrowful numbers tell it to be.

Stanza 2 – The Optimistic View 

Life is real! Life is earnest!
   And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
   Was not spoken of the soul.

Here the narrator shares the optimistic view which this Psalm of Life is trying to instill. Here we get what the poet’s perception of life is. Contrasting with the pessimistic view, Longfellow says that life is not a hollow dream, but life is real, life is not an illusion or something that should be wasted. These lines shows the positivity of the poet. In the subsequent lines, the poet tell us about the essence of life, challenging the biblical view.

“For Dust Thou Art, To Dust Returnest” has been taken from Genesis 3:19. Longfellow says that it may be true for the body, which is inevitable, it is not true for the soul. We may confuse the goal of life with the final destination of life. While death is inevitable destination, the goal of life is not to reach the grave. He says that there was ways with which we can attain immortality for the soul. He describes these in the later stanzas.

Stanza 3 – The Guide 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Finds us farther than to-day.

With both the polar opposite views of the life discussed, the poet now tells us how life should be lived. He carefully explains why positive thinking about life is not the pursuit of happiness or the avoidance of sorrow. I think this is the stanza that holds one of the most powerful and concrete message in the poem.

The poet says that the explicit pursuit of happiness will lead to sorrow, hence to be happy or sad is not the goal of life. The goal should be to know and be content that both joy and sorrow will be the part of life. One should world and improve upon oneself so that you keep improving. Always try and be the better version of what you were yesterday.

Stanza 4 – The Ticking Clock.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.

In this stanza, we get to know why the poet called life as “real and earnest” in the second stanza. Longfellow puts two contrasting things against one another to express the gravity of the situation. He says art, or the work that you have to do is always growing. At the same instant, time, that is utterly important, is always fleeting. It is not going to last long and it waits for none.

So while our responsibilities and goals increase everyday, the time that we have to achieve all of that decreases. Life is hence earnest and not a dream. The poet also states that our lives might be brave and stout, but the beating of it is a reminder that it is marching us towards our funeral. Like the ticking of the clock, the beating of our hearts is a reminder of the fleeting time we have. 

Stanza 5 – The Battle 

In the world’s broad field of battle,
   In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
   Be a hero in the strife!

This is the stanza where Longfellow brings the theme of war in Psalm of Life to show the seriousness of the situation. You come into this world with a borrowed amount of time, that is called life. Longfellow calls life as a bivouac. A bivouac is a temporary encampment used by military personnels. So the world is a battlefield and in this bivouac of life, you cannot work according to someone else’s direction completely. Life is harsh and ruthless.

A Bivouac
A Bivouac, as mentioned in the poem

The poet tells us not to be dumb and driven like cattle which eventually goes to the slaughterhouse. Be the hero, do what a brave soldier does in a battlefield and rise in the strife. That is how you have to win this battle.

Stanza 6 – No Regret 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Another very important stanza of the poem where the poet warns us about two things that are equally plaguing and dangerous. He says trust no future, however pleasant it may be. This is what many of the daydreamers succumb to temptation. A pleasant future’s expectations can render one useless, because they start to live in that. The poet warns us not to do that.

Longfellow also tells us not to live in in the past, filled with regret. This is another thing that many people perish too. He says let the dead Past bury it’s dead. Whatever happened in the past, be it good or bad, don’t let it linger in your mind too long. 

Finally Longfellow says that you should always live in the present, work at the very instant you are in with faith in yourself and faith in the consequences.

Stanza 7 – Possibility 

Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;

Here the poet motivates us that this whole message in the Psalm for Life is not some unattainable goal. He says that it has been done before and can be done again. The examples are the lives of great men who chose to go against this pessimistic view of life and acted in the present. This is where he reinforces the line of immortal soul when he says “Footprints on the sands of time.” By doing what the great men did, we can make ourselves noble and elevated. And hence, our work will live as our soul, immortally. The line “Footprints on sands of time” is a very important one and we will explain it further in the later section of the article.

A Psalm of Life
Sands of Time

Stanza 8 – Inspire 

Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again.

In this stanza, Longfellow compares our situation with someone else similar’s in the future. Like we can take inspiration from the  immortal works of great men, similarly, someone else who is in despair can take inspiration from your work. Your work can make someone else’s life better.

A very important thing to note here is the use of metaphor for life. “A forlorn and shipwrecked bother.” Here life is compared to a cast ocean and our lives as ships. This beautifully ties with the the first stanza where the poet said “For the soul is dead that slumbers,” as a ship that has stopped moving in the ocean is as good as wrecked.

Stanza 9 –  Act Now 

Let us, then, be up and doing,
   With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
   Learn to labor and to wait.

The ultimate stanza of the poem tells us to keep all the things we learned in our hearts and start acting, which is the ultimate goal of life. We must prepare for whatever may come in the future and start working today, so that tomorrow we can be something better. So that we can move ahead. It ends with the message to keep achieving and pursuing, never to stop and let life pass. The last line conveys the message to keep working patiently.

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The Figures of Speech in A Psalm of Life.

There are many different figures of speech used in the poem. We have listed the most important ones with their meaning. 

Metonym – A metonym is when the poet replaces one word in the verse with something very similar to convey the same meaning. Here the example would be the use of “grave” to convey death in the line; “And the grave is not its goal.”

Personification – This is when the writer gives emotions and traits of humans to inanimate objects. An example here is “And our hearts, though stout and brave.” Here our hearts are given human qualities.

Simile is used in the like “Be not like dumb, driven like cattle.”

Metaphor – A metaphor is when the writer compares two dissimilar things without the use of words like as, like, etc. Here the metaphor used is “Life is but an empty dream,” “For a soul is dead that slumbers,” “In the bivouac of life.”

An important part of the poem that uses metaphor is “Footprints on sands of time.” This metaphor has been wildly popular and here it conveys two things.

  1. It uses sands to represent time, as sand is used in an hourglass.
  2. As walking on sand can create footprints, the poem also says that your footprints (work) can create an impression on someone else’s mind and timeline. Clever.

The Theme of A Psalm of Life

As it may have become very clear that A Psalm of Life is about living the life at the present and trying our best to become something better than what we were yesterday. It is also to forget the regrets and happiness of the past that is gone. At the same time, it tells us not to indulge in the sweet dreams for the future, but to live in the present. Life can be tough and ruthless, like a war. But that is not an excuse to stay still and do nothing, eventually leading to death. But let’s here what the theme and meaning of the poem is from the poet, Longfellow himself.

A Psalm of Life H.W Longfellow
A Bust of H.W Longfellow

“The poem was a transcript of my thoughts and feeling at the same time I wrote, and of the conviction therein expressed, that life is something more than an ideal dream.” 

The poem is about struggle and optimism, it is about the reality of life and the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves. At the same time, it tells us that life is not easy, but that should not deter one from achieving something great, like other great people have done before.

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