A Psalm of Life by HW Longfellow: Poetry Analysis

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868 cover image art by Wordsrum. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons

“A Psalm of Life” is a renowned poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It serves as an inspiring and uplifting anthem that encourages readers to embrace the present moment and live a purposeful life. The poem urges individuals to be proactive, strive for greatness, and to leave a meaningful impact on the world.

Longfellow emphasizes the importance of perseverance, hope, and the pursuit of noble endeavors. Through its rhythmic and melodious verses, “A Psalm of Life” resonates with readers, reminding them of the inherent value and potential of every human life.

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.

The poem has several literary devices employed to enhance the impact and meaning of the poem. Here are some notable literary devices used:


1. “Footprints on the sands of time”: This metaphor represents the lasting impact of our actions and the legacy we leave behind. It suggests that just as footprints in the sand are visible for a while before being washed away, our actions can leave an indelible mark on the world.

2. “Art is long, and Time is fleeting”: This metaphor contrasts the enduring nature of art with the fleeting nature of time. It emphasizes the significance of creating something meaningful and lasting, as opposed to being consumed by the rapid passage of time.

3. “In the world’s broad field of battle”: This metaphor presents life as a battlefield, where individuals face challenges, make choices, and strive for success. It captures the intensity and struggles of life, urging readers to be proactive and engaged in their pursuits.

4. “Be not like dumb, driven cattle”: This metaphor compares individuals without purpose or ambition to mindless and passive animals. It encourages readers to avoid a passive and complacent existence and instead lives with intention and purpose.


1. “Life is but an empty dream”: Here, life is personified as having the capacity to dream, emphasizing its transient and ephemeral nature.

2. “Trust no future, however pleasant”: The future is personified as something that can be trusted or distrusted, highlighting the uncertain and unpredictable nature of what lies ahead.

3. “Art is long, and Time is fleeting”: Time is personified as having the ability to flee or pass quickly, contrasting it with the enduring nature of art.

4. “Act, – act in the living Present”: The present is personified as a living entity that calls upon individuals to take action and seize the opportunities it offers.


1. “Tell me not”: This phrase is repeated at the beginning of several lines, emphasizing the speaker’s insistence on not being discouraged or disheartened by pessimistic views.

2. “Life is real!”: This line is repeated multiple times, serving as a rallying cry and a reminder to embrace the reality of life and make the most of it.

3. “Let us then”: These words are repeated to emphasize the speaker’s call to action and the collective responsibility to make a meaningful impact.


Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words nearby. It adds a musical quality to the poem and can create emphasis or enhance certain phrases. Here are a few examples of alliteration in the poem:

1. “Footprints on the sands of time”: The repetition of the “f” sound in “footprints” and “sands” creates an alliterative effect, emphasizing the lasting impact of one’s actions.

2. “Lives of great men all remind us”: The repetition of the “l” sound in “lives” and “all” adds a melodic quality to the line, drawing attention to the remainder of the influence of great individuals.

3. “Be not like dumb, driven cattle”: The repetition of the “d” sound in “dumb” and “driven” creates a harsh and forceful alliteration, highlighting the importance of not living a passive existence.


Through descriptive language and detailed imagery, the poem brings to life the ideas it conveys. Here are a few examples of imagery in the poem:

1. “Footprints on the sands of time”: This image conjures up the visual of footprints left in the sand, symbolizing the lasting impact of one’s actions.

2. “In the world’s broad field of battle”: This phrase creates an image of a vast battlefield, representing the challenges and struggles encountered in life.

3. “Let us, then, be up and doing”: This line encourages action and paints a picture of individuals actively engaged in pursuing their goals.

4. “Life is real! Life is earnest!”: This assertion emphasizes the tangible and substantial nature of life, creating a vivid image of existence as something vivid and meaningful.


In summary, “A Psalm of Life” by HW Longfellow is a resonant and inspiring poem that urges readers to live a purposeful life. The poem captivates and moves its audience through its masterful use of literary devices, including metaphor, personification, anaphora, rhyme, alliteration, and imagery.

The metaphors and personification infuse abstract concepts with vitality and relatability, while the repetition of the anaphora reinforces key ideas and creates a rhythmic and memorable effect. The poem’s rhyme scheme and alliteration enhance its musicality and lyrical quality, enveloping readers in its melodic flow.

Additionally, the vivid imagery transports readers to various settings, engaging their senses and fostering a deeper connection with the poem’s themes. Ultimately, “A Psalm of Life” serves as an enduring reminder to live intentionally, face life’s challenges with resilience, and leave a lasting legacy in the world.

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