Summary and Analysis of “A Psalm Of Life” By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A Psalm Of Life Analysis: “A Psalm of Life” was written by the famed New England poet and professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. First published in New York in 1838 literary magazine The Knickerbocker, the poem was inspired by a conversation between Longfellow and a fellow professor.

Students can also check the English Summary to revise with them during exam preparation.

A Psalm Of Life Summary

The young man refuses to accept that life is “an empty dream” or that the soul is dead while speaking from his “heart.”

Instead, he says that life is indeed true and real and that death is not the final goal of life; the soul does lives on and not turn to dust. We are meant to go beyond and act on mere happiness or sorrow.

We still move towards death, even though we are brave. Thus, we must be heroic and seize the life we have, be much more than just dumb beasts. We ought to be wary of the future and the past and instead act and live within the present.

When we look at the great men’s lives, we can see that it is possible to live with meaning and that we leave our “footprints on the sands of Tim” when we depart. It is completely possible that some other person who is actually toiling mournfully may take heart and see our footprints. Knowing this, we should be hopeful and be prepared for anything; we should endeavour to achieve and pursue, as well as “learn to labor and to wait.”

A Psalm Of Life

A Psalm Of Life Analysis per Stanza

Stanza 1 – The View of an Anti-Pessimistic

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.

With the life and goals that deny the pessimistic view of the Psalmist, the beginning of the poem starts. The poet does refuse to believe in the negative view of a person’s life. He asks not to tell him this perception of pessimism about life in mournful numbers.

Mournful numbers here actually indicate Psalm verses that tell that life is just a hollow dream. He completely denies that life is filled with misfortunes and is a meaningless dream.

For the soul which is dead at that slumbers; The use of metaphor here tells that the soul which sleeps is as good as dead. The poet says that life is not truly what the sorrowful numbers tell it to be so.

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 sanguine view which is trying to instill, the Psalm of Life. Here we get what the poet’s perception or impression of life is. Completely 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 show the positivity of the poet. In the subsequent lines, the poet challenging the biblical view tells us about the essence of life.

While death is an inevitable destination, the goal of life is not to reach the grave. He says that there were ways with which we can attain immortality for the soul. In the later stanzas, he describes these more.

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.

The poet now tells us about how life should be lived, with both the polar opposite views of the life discussed.

The poet explains that the explicit pursuit of happiness will eventually lead to sorrow; hence to be sad or happy is not the goal of life. The goal should be content, and we know that both joy and sorrow will be part of life. One should work and improve upon oneself so that one could keep improving. Always try hard and be the better version of what you actually 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 the reason why the poet called life as “real and earnest” in the second stanza of the poem. Longfellow, to express the gravity of the situation, puts two contrasting things against one another. He says time, which is utterly important, is always fleeting from us. It is not going to last any longer, and it waits for none.

So while our responsibilities and goals increase every day, the time that we have to achieve all of that does decreases. Like the ticking of the clock, the heart’s beat is actually a reminder of the fleeting time we poss.

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!

A Psalm Of Life Analysis theme of war in the poem Psalm of Life shows some of the seriousness of the situation which has been brought by Longfellow in this is this stanza. Longfellow calls life as a hutment.

A hutment is a temporary encampment used by military personnel. So the world is referred to as a battlefield, and in this hutment of life, you cannot work according to someone else’s direction completely. Life is harsh and ruthless.

The poet tells us to be the hero and asks us to do how a brave soldier rises in the strife and does on a battlefield. That is how one has to win this battle.

Stanza 6 – No Regret 

Trust no Future, however pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,–act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God overhead!

The poem’s stanza warns us about two things that are equally plaguing and dangerous, which are very important. He says trust no future, as a pleasant future’s expectations can render one useless because they actually start to live in that. The poet warns us and not to repeat that.

Longfellow also tells us whatever happened, be it good or bad in the past, don’t let it linger in your mind for very long.

Finally, Longfellow says that you should always work at the very instant you are in with faith by living in the present, in yourself and have 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;

In the Psalm for Life, here the poet motivates us that this whole message is not some unattainable goal. He says that what has been done before and can also be repeated.

The examples that the poet uses in the lives of great men who did choose to go against this pessimistic view of life and always acted in the present. This is the point where he reinforces the line of an immortal soul when he says, “Footprints on the sands of time.”

By doing everything that the great men did, we can make ourselves elevated and noble. And hence, our work will immortally live as our soul.

Stanza 8 – Inspire 

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Longfellow compares our situation with someone in this stanza, else similar is in the future. Like how from the immortal words of great men, we can take inspiration.

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

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 is all about keeping all the things we learned in our hearts and starting to act, which should be the ultimate goal of life. We must prepare ourselves for whatever may come in the very future and start working today to be a little better tomorrow so that we can move ahead and grow.

It ends with the message of keeping achievements and pursuing and never letting life pass and stop. The last line conveys the message to keep working patiently.

About Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow versed in several European languages and was a Harvard scholar. He was quite heavily influenced by Romanticism and made a name as a novelist and poet with works like Hyperion, Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha and Poems on Slavery. He was also popular for his translation of The Divine Comedy by Dante.

Longfellow did produce some of his best work, such as a collection of poems including Hymn to the Night and A Psalm of Life, which gained him immediate popularity and Voices of the Night. Other publications followed, such as containing “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and the “Village Blacksmith”, Ballads and Other Poems.

Summary of A Psalm Of Life