A Psalm of Life

A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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
Find 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.

Summary of the Poem A Psalm of Life

  • Popularity of “A Psalm of Life”: Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a great American poet, and educator, “A Psalm of Life” is a famous pome on account of its explication the pragmatic view of life. It was first published in 1838. The poem deals with the subject of life and the possibilities it offers to human beings. It also encourages readers to live life to its fullest. Since its publication, it has gained immense popularity across the globe on account of its subject matter.
  • “A Psalm of Life” “As a Presentation of Life”: In this poem, the poet presents a highly optimistic view of life. The young speaker of the poem gives the psalmist advice to the readers on how they should lead their lives. To him, life is not a dull, dumb or empty dream but offers immense opportunities to fulfill our dreams. We can achieve our goals by utilizing time and working hard. He negates the teachings that lead us to a pessimistic outlook of life.  With his arguments, he tries to show the power and potential of life. He states that we should not spend life waiting for death. Rather, we should work diligently and devotedly to leave our name in the world. What enchants the readers is the message that life has an end and that we should leave our mark on the infinite flow of time through our hard work.
  • Major Themes in “A Psalm of Life”: Life and hope are two major themes of the poem, which the poet has incorporated using aplenty of literary elements. He says we should not mourn the past; instead, we should live the present moments of life to the fullest. He compares life with a battle saying that we should act like a hero and surmount every obstacle that comes in our way. Throughout the poem, he intends to encourage the readers and urges them not to let the precious moments of life go in vain. He instructs them to keep a balance between happiness and sorrows and carve a better future for themselves.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “A Psalm of Life”

Literary devices are tools that enable the writers to present their ideas, emotions, and feelings and also help the readers understand those more profound meanings. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow has also used some literary devices in this poem. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem has been given below.

  • Allusions: Allusion is an indirect reference of a person, place, thing or idea of a historical, cultural, political or literary significance. Longfellow has used this device in the opening line of the poem such as, “Tell me not, in mournful numbers.” Here the numbers refer to the chapters and sections of the Bible.
  • Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line such as the sound of /e/ in “Lives of great men all remind us” and the sound of /i/ in “Still achieving, still pursuing”.
  • Imagery: Imagery is used to make the readers perceive things with their five senses. Henry has used visual imagery to conjure mental images such as, “In the world’s broad field of battle” and “Footprints on the sands of time”.
  • Personification: Personification is to give human qualities to inanimate subjects. He has personified the soul in the last line of the second stanza, “Was not spoken of the soul” as if the soul is human and it can speak.
  • Anaphora: It refers to the repetition of a word or expression in the poem. Henry has repeated the word “life” to emphasize his feelings about life in the fifth line where it is stated as, “Life is real! Life is earnest.”
  • Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /r/ in “A forlorn and shipwrecked brother.”
  • Paradox: A paradox is a statement that may seem contradictory yet can be true, or at least makes sense. He has used this device in the fourth line where it is stated as, “And things are not what they seem.” Here he talks about appearances versus reality.
  • Parallelism: Parallelism is the use of components in a sentence grammatically the same or similar in their construction, sound, meaning, or meter. This device is used in the second stanza where “Life is real” is paralleling “Life is earnest!” and again in the final stanza where “Still achieving” is paralleling “still pursuing”.
  • Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /n/ in “Not enjoyment, and not sorrow”.

The literary analysis shows that appropriate use of literary elements has made it a thought-provoking for the readers despite its simplicity.

Analysis of Poetic Devices in “A Psalm of Life”

 Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  • Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are nine stanzas in this poem each having four lines in it.
  • Quatrain: A quatrain is a four-lined stanza borrowed from Persian Here, each stanza is quatrain as the first one and the second one.
  • Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme followed by the entire poem is ABAB.
  • End Rhyme: End rhyme is used to make the stanza melodious. End rhyme occurs within the second and third lines and again within the second and fourth lines. The rhyming words are “number”, “slumber”, “dream” and “seem.”

Quotes to be Used

The lines quoted below can be used in a speech to motivate the devastated people. These could also be used in religious sermons to elevate the courage of downtrodden masses.

“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!”