‘A Psalm of Life’ is nine stanzas long and is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains each following a rhyming pattern of abab cdcd efef…and so on, varying as the poem proceeds.
The poem begins with the speaker contradicting a listener who wants to explain life to him as a matter of number and figures. The rest of the poem is dedicated to the speaker trying to prove this unknown person wrong. He describes the way in which he believes that no matter what death brings, the soul will never be destroyed. Because of this, it is important to do all one can in life to make one’s situation, and that of others, better.
The speaker comes to the conclusion that he, and the listener, must be prepared at any time for death, strife, or any trouble thrown at them. They must face life, and make the best of every day.
Analysis of A Psalm of 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.
The speaker of ‘A Psalm of Life’ begins by asking something of his listener. He is close to the point of begging, desperate that his worst fears (which will be revealed as the poem continues) are not confirmed.
He is asking his listener at this point to “not” tell him that “Life is but an empty dream.” He does not want this person to break down the statistics, facts, and “numbers” of life, in an attempt to make sense of it. The speaker does not see, nor does he want to understand the world in that way.
In the second half of the quatrain, and for the majority of the poem hereafter, the speaker is attempting to fight back against the idea that life can be broken down into flat, emotionless, numerics. He states that a “soul is dead” that is able to think of the world in this way. The person who analyzes the world so carefully (and in this particular manner) is making a mistake.
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.
The narrator continues on with what reads as a desperate attempt to contradict what he was afraid of in the first stanza. He exclaims for any to hear that “Life is real!” And it is “earnest!” He is enthusiastically supportive of the idea that life is worth living and that it is worth something real. He believes that there is a reason to be alive other than getting to the grave.
He elaborates on this belief when he describes the ending of life as belonging solely to the body, and not to the soul. When the words, “Dust thou art, to dust returnest” were spoken, he says, they were not in reference to “the soul.”
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
The speaker continues his discussion of the purpose or point of life, He does not believe, nor will he even consider, the possibility that life is made to suffer through. Additionally, he knows that “enjoyment” is not one’s predetermined destiny. There will be both of these emotions along the way, but the greatest purpose of life is “to act,” with the intent of furthering oneself and those around one.
The narrator is confident in his beliefs and knows how to live his own life.
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 fourth stanza of ‘A Psalm of Life’, the narrator speaks about what life can seem to be. He understands that too many “Art is long,” there is much of it to see and not enough time to see it in. This is an irreconcilable problem and there’s nothing one can do about it.
One must be “stout and brave” and following the beating drums of life to the grave. One does not have to go to their death without having accomplished anything though.
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!
The speaker expands on the idea that one must make something of one’s life while it possible to. He compares the days of life to the breadth of a battlefield. It is in this field one must not act like “driven cattle,” who are pushed around by others but as a “hero” who is battling his way through “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!
The sixth quatrain of ‘A Psalm of Life’ speaks on how one must regard the past and future. The past must remain where it is, along with it’s dead. It should not influence one any more than is necessary. The “living Present” is what is important because this is where one’s “Heart” is, along with “God” watching down from “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;
After having addressed all the parts of life the speaker turns to his own inspirations and who believes should influence the listener. He reminds all who hear him that there have been many great men on this planet and that their lives should “remind us” that “We can” also have “lives sublime.” It is possible, when death finally comes, to leave a legacy that is worth something.
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
The legacy that the speaker describes is shown as “footprints” that are forever on the “sands of time.” One’s life will become one of those that other’s take comfort in. A “brother,” many years from now, might see those footprints and “take heart again” that he has a future, even when things seem darkest.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
In the final stanza, the speaker makes a concluding statement, directed at the listener. He asks that they “be up,” and prepared for “any fate.” He is ready, at least mentally and emotionally, to embrace what life will throw at him and he hopes the listener he has been arguing with will follow along. They will stand up to the world and “learn to labor and wait” for all the things worth waiting for. Life and death will proceed onwards and the narrator will be there, ready for anything.
About Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine in February of 1807. As a young man he was sent to private school, and alongside his peers was fellow writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow was a proficient student of languages and after school, traveled, at his own expense, throughout Europe where he refined his language skills.
After this trip, he was married and began to write language textbooks. He published a collection of essays that earned him a professorship at Harvard University. Longfellow’s wife died in 1836 from a miscarriage and he turned to his writing as a means of comfort. Soon after this loss he published the novel, Hyperion. Longfellow would marry again, seven years later. He and his new with, Frances Appleton, had six children.
Over the next decade and a half, Longfellow produced his best work. These included ‘Voices of the Night’, ‘Hymn to the Night’, and later, ‘A Psalm of Life’. His popularity was growing throughout Europe and America. In the last years of his life, he enjoyed real fame. This success was dampened by loss as his second wife died in a house fire. Longfellow died in March of 1882 after developing severe stomach pains. He lived to see himself become one of America’s most successful writers.