Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


‘A Psalm of Life’ is a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet and educator. He was a member of a group known as ‘The Fireside Poets.’ His poem ‘A Psalm of Life’ celebrates and hails life. The psalm is the song of life. According to the poet, everyone of us has only one life. We should make the best of the life that God has given us.

Summary and Analysis of Psalm of Life

Psalms are spiritual songs. It is a prayer to God or an invocation to Him. The poem is not a traditional ‘psalm’ in this sense. However, the poet refers to it as a psalm since it is an appeal to man to approach life with a good and right attitude—to walk the path of righteousness. In the poem, the poet encourages men to view life as an opportunity to reach greater heights. Philosophers and poets have frequently discussed life as an illusion. Even William Shakespeare, a renowned writer, said of man, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” in his play The Tempest. Such viewpoints give a bleak and dismal image of life.

According to the poet, a person who does not fulfil his or her full potential in life and does not actively participate in it is as good as dead. For all of us are put into the world to accomplish our objectives, and if we fail to do so, our life is meaningless.

The expression “things are not what they seem” appears to imply that appearance is not reality—that a person squandering himself is not the true meaning of life. According to the poet, the true meaning of life is when we have a feeling of purpose in our lives—a goal that we try to reach.

In the first stanza, the poet attacks a pessimistic and unenthusiastic perspective of life in which life is perceived as a simple illusion and a dream—for these individuals, the reality is death that lasts and life is merely a bubble ready to burst. Such attitudes are criticized by the poet, who claims that sitting back and letting life pass by instead of engaging in it is not the genuine purpose of life.

Life has real meaning, and we have a serious task to complete. For the poet, ‘death is not the final objective toward which we must strive. He is implying that man was not placed into the world only to have a tryst with death. However, there are great achievements that must be achieved on the road of life.

The verse “dust thou are, to dust thou return” alludes to the Bible, which teaches that God created man out of clay and then breathed life into him. As a result, a man was fashioned of dust, and after being buried, he would ultimately return to the same dust.

These lines are also a reference to the book of Genesis, when God tells the fallen Adam, “thou are dust, and unto dust shall thou return.” The speaker in Longfellow’s poem asserts that, while the human body will die, the spirit will not. The poet refers to this, stating that what the bible preached about a man being formed of dust and returning to being one with the dust was just about the body, not the soul because the soul will always live on via his accomplishments and activities.

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Some people, such as the Epicureans, believed that life is brief, therefore live it to the fullest and enjoy every second of it. On the other side, some philosophers saw life as an illusion and had a pessimistic outlook on life.

Both are extremes, and the poet is critical of both. He claims that neither happiness nor grief is the chosen path of life. Instead, we must strive in the present throughout our lives so that our tomorrow is more advanced than our present. To carry out actions that will better man’s situation.

The notion behind the phrase “Art is long, and Time is fleeting” is that, while life passes quickly, learning how to live well—deciphering the “art” of living—takes a long time. Alternatively, the poet might indicate that “art” or “work” done during one’s life can be kept endlessly and goes on long after its author dies, despite the fact that life itself is brief.

Longfellow believes in man’s capacities and believes that every one of us can attain heroism if we are bold enough not to be intimidated by life’s hardships. As a result, our hearts are “stout and fearless.” With a smile, he compares the human heartbeat to “muffled drums,” much as a drum may produce a bright or quiet sound depending on how the performer plays it. This suggests that we may be passionate and active about life while keeping up with the quick speed of life. Yet, we are so overwhelmed by the fact that life is brief and pointless that we merely limit our reactions to it and, in a very subservient fashion, prepare for our final march towards death.

A heartbeat can sound like a drumbeat in a literary environment, but Longfellow expands this metaphor to indicate that our own hearts are counting the timid counts of a gradual and inexorable trip towards death. Longfellow argues that each beat of our hearts brings us closer to death.

Metamorphically,  life is compared to a battlefield, and man is the soldier. His body is the “bivouac” or temporary tent in which the soul must rest. When a soldier is engaged in a war, he must overcome all obstacles and endeavour to win. Similarly, the poet tells us to be “a hero in the middle of strife” in life rather than “a dumb driven cow.” The poet employs a lot of military imagery in this verse. The poet reminds us of the fleeting essence of life by comparing it to a “bivouac.”

The poet compares us to “dumb driven cattle” because we lack resolve and direction much too frequently. He believes that people should live heroic and fearless lives rather than sitting inactive and feeling inadequate while the world changes around them.

We should not put our faith in the future, no matter how many promises it makes, for there are many slips between the cup and the lip. At the same time, we must allow previous events in our lives to be buried and forgotten. Man does not have control over the past or the future. The poet invites the reader to live in the present moment. The present is referred to as “living,” i.e. “alive,” since it is the only moment over which we have control.

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“Heart within and God overhead”- Longfellow advises everyone to have faith in their capabilities while also trusting God. He advocates living in the now rather than relying on an unknown future or clinging to bygones.

The lives of notable figures encourage us to believe that we, too, may have magnificent lives. Great and noteworthy men are people who have lived extraordinary lives and left a legacy for future generations to follow. He sees these men as role models for others who have yet to experience life. Great men leave their accomplishments in the form of “footprints” or trails for others to observe and follow. These guys should encourage us to live our lives to the fullest, to break records, and to push the envelope.

“Sailing o’er life’s solemn main”- A traveller on the turbulent seas of life, one who is devastated and miserable, may take heart and be encouraged to find direction in life after witnessing the footsteps.

The message communicated in the poem’s final line is an echo of the poet’s encouragement to everybody to strive and do their utmost to make their lives great and achieve as much as they can. He does, however, advise us to be ready for success or failure and not to be discouraged. We must continue to achieve, establish new goals, and push ourselves to new heights. Only after putting in the effort should we expect to reap the benefits that will come with time. The poem finishes with a message of warning and optimism, just as it began.

Theme of the Poem

The first six stanzas of this nine-stanza poem are a little hazy because each stanza seems to start a new thought. Rather than a coherent process of reasoning, the emphasis here is on a feeling. What kind of feeling? It appears to be a reaction against science, which focuses on computations (“mournful numbers”) and empirical data, neither of which can prove the existence of the soul. Longfellow lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution when science, rationality, and reason were thriving. The fact that the first six stanzas do not follow a rational line of thought makes perfect sense from this perspective.

According to the poem, science appears to restrain one’s spirit or soul (“for the soul is dead that slumbers”), resulting in inaction and complacency from which we must break free (“Act,—act in the living Present! / Heart within, and God o’erhead!”) for lofty purposes such as Art, Heart, and God before time runs out (“Art is long, and Time is fleeting”). The poem’s final three stanzas—which, having broken free from science by this stage in the poem, read more smoothly—suggest that acting for noble causes might lead to greatness and assist others.

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The poem as a whole could be viewed as a clarion call to do big things, no matter how little they appear in the present and on the objectively observable surface. That could mean writing a poem and entering it in a poetry contest although the chances of your poem winning are slim; risking your life for a cause you believe in despite the fact that it is unpopular or misunderstood; or volunteering for a cause that, while seemingly hopeless, you believe is vital. As a result, the poem’s brilliance lies in its capacity to plainly prescribe a path to greatness in today’s environment.

Questions and Answers

Q. What kind of approach does the poet have towards life?

Ans. The poet believes in the immediacy of the present moment of life and thus living the present moment worthily by doing the needful things.

Q. According to the speaker, what is not the goal of life? When will our soul really be dead?
Ans . Enjoyment should not be the goal since time is passing away and it is the actions which give meaning to our lives. How we act today shapes our future.

Q. What is it the lives of great men illustrate to us according to the poem?
Ans. The lives of great men illustrate how we can make our life noble and awe-inspiring through our works and leave behind an example to be followed by the next generation.

Q. What does the sands of time refer to?
Ans. The expression sands of time directly refer to an hourglass where the sand trickles away to mark the passage of time. Thus, this expression means that time is passing away.

Q. What is the message of the poem ‘Psalm of Life?
Ans. The poem is about celebrating the possibilities of life and working towards making life worthwhile by constantly passing away. Therefore,  feels one should not remain passive but do something meaningful such that others can follow his/her actions. It is about celebrating the present and making full use of it.

Q. Find out rhyming pairs used in the poem.
Ans. The rhyming words in the poem are- Number-slumber, dream-seem, earnest-returnest, goal-soul, sorrow-morrow, way-day, fleeting-beating, etc.

Q. What does the poet say about the human soul in the poem A Psalm of Life?

Ans. In the poem “A Psalm of Life” the poet states his belief that the human soul is not temporal. It can never be destroyed.  Though the body becomes dust again and goes back to the earth, the soul is immortal or eternal. So he says: “Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul.”

Q. What is the meaning of A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

Ans. “A Psalm of Life” is an inspirational poem written by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Psalm means songs or hymns. But here the meaning of “a psalm of life” is a song of life, where the poet glorifies life and its possibilities. It is an invocation to mankind to follow the path of righteousness, the right way to live this life

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