A Poet's Prayer: Deeper Truths Behind Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” prefaced with the phrase “What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist” treads the line very carefully between poem and prayer. This is accomplished not merely by Longfellow’s heightened quality of rhythm, an uplifting score that sings itself off the page, but by the Biblically grounded references dispersed throughout. In drawing these connections, the reader will discover an enriched understanding of the poem’s overall message. It is not some tract on the poet’s ideas alone but a testament to truth.
Early on the reader is hit with short declarative bursts, the broader aims of the poem being introduced by the second stanza:
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. (Lines 5-8)
Accordingly, these aims are rooted in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, where God creates the heavens and the earth. He fills the earth with life and establishes man and woman as its stewards. “Dust thou art, to dust returnest” is taken directly from Genesis 3:19, the punishment given to humankind after the fall. Now, in their fallen state, their lives are subjected to a natural end: “the grave.” This was a result of sin, however, and not the intended purpose for humankind. For it is written, “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecc.12:7). Life is the road between; it is not to be wasted. A road is meant to be walked, a symbol of progress, as shown in the following verse:
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Finds us farther than to-day. (Lines 9-12)
It is not so much about the destination, as there are many checkpoints along this road. The simple pleasures, the inevitable strife, are neither the purpose nor the goal for our time in the world. It is “to act” and not only for the sake of movement; movement only matters when it is forward driven. Longfellow does not leave a verse in “A Psalm of Life” because it sounds rhythmic or it invokes the senses. Those functions come based on his quality as a poet, yet the real skill is in how each stanza builds on the last, calling back to it when necessary to establish a claim about life.
In a later line the poet states, “Art is long, and Time is fleeting” (Line 13). There is a certain resignation to restlessness in uttering the phrase. What progress is to be had in something so vast when time is limited? The poet poses this challenge not to discourage the weary listener but to charge that listener’s dissatisfaction, reinvigorating the tireless quest. To make the quest art gives these lines a special focus, considering Longfellow is a poet speaking to other poets. This lesson of life now extends to share the personal experience. It is true, the dreams of an artist are immeasurable, and so is the work needed to gain momentum. We are “beating / Funeral marches to the grave” (Lines 15-16) when life is made a “broad field of battle” (Line 17). And life, in its fullest, will be a battle one cannot pass by on the sidelines, awaiting victory to be won by another soldier. To accomplish our goals, we must charge across enemy lines at the gravest risk of danger.
Next comes a warning of the milestones of success. The endeavor called for is so infinite, or should be considered so in our minds, that when we achieve a goal we must not sit back and be satisfied. Longfellow here plays with Past, Present, and Future, applying an action for each:
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! (Lines 21-4)
The second line lifts a quote, though slightly modified, from Matthew 8:22 that goes like this: “But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” This Gospel passage makes clear the level of dedication a follower of Christ must have. Matthew even places this scene before his own call to follow Christ. In Matthew 9:9 we see the disciple at work in the tax office, and once presented with the words “Follow me” he gets up and follows Jesus. He wasted no time in settling his affairs, moving on his path in an instant. By inserting “Past” into this line of scripture, Longfellow is telling us to forget our own past. The past, with all its mistakes and all its failures, does not progress our future. If the mind dwells on it the past will inhibit any growth or passage moving forward. That is why we “act” in the present – “the living Present” – because it is the only point in time where we can change our lives. It decides how we view the past; it influences how we are to live our future. Longfellow finalizes these powerful statements reminding us “Heart within, and God o’erhead!” (Line 24). Our power to change is within and the gift of grace to do so comes from above.
“A Psalm of Life” reaches its climax with the following pair of stanzas, conjoined by the word “footprints” to accentuate the relationship between the two. Fashioned as an extended metaphor, the scene places us out at sea looking back at the shore, its grains of sand symbolizing time as the ocean is our path of departure from it. It goes as follows:
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. (Lines 25-32)
The ending phrase “take heart again” bears resemblance to a number of Biblical passages. The English Standard Version of John 16:33 is the most striking of these: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” “Take heart” is taken to mean “be of good cheer,” as it is translated in the RSV and KJV Bibles. In another instance, this is how the phrase appears in Psalm 31:24, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!” The psalmist gives the same message to the faithful, for in the context of the Gospel Jesus is preparing His disciples for the time of His crucifixion. Yet through their faith that this sacrifice conquers the sin of the world, their “sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20). But what are we to make of this presented at this exact point of the poem? How should we consider the words of Jesus Christ with the lives of “great men”, and how are we to find cheer and courage in what they have left for us?
Any Catholic reader, such as myself, is tempted here to deduce “great men” as the saints; and that very notion would agree with the poem. Think of Ignatius of Antioch on the road to Rome, still writing letters expounding aspects of the faith for his fellow Christians, though he will be fed to wild beasts for professing it. And of Augustine, whose long and arduous struggle with temptation is told first hand, in his own brutal honesty, through his Confessions. However, these “lives” Longfellow speaks of can even be pushed beyond the scope of the faithful. This leads us to grasp the triumphs of Julius Caesar or the philosophical meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The feats of Hector and Aeneas or the poetic prowess of Dante, Shakespeare, and Keats. Even in our own age, we have teachers like Jordan Peterson, who takes his knowledge and lived experience, giving it freely for the hope those following him will seek to better themselves.
Because, yes, we are all aiming to fill the void left from a prior age. We as a species progress only because we are given so much to start with. All the saints follow Christ, and men of the world follow other men, and even saints, as they are in this world, tread on the examples of other saints. Remembering the words of their Lord, all but one of the twelve disciples faced martyrdom in declaring the death and resurrection. Julius Caesar did not consider himself a great man while he had yet to accomplish a fraction of what Alexander the Great had done before him. Throughout the cantos of The Divine Comedy it is Virgil, a more ancient poet of the Italian peninsula, who guides Dante, not some imaginary specter of the self. And who would be the poet Keats if not for Spenser? And Spenser, likewise, if not for Chaucer? These poets understood this, as evident by the poetry they have left us. They were hopeful some later poet would take up the pen after them, and many have. We may even say, to tie this theme perfectly, that Longfellow in “A Psalm of Life” follows the great psalmist, King David.
The final stanza summarizes the poem’s message with a call to action:
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait. (Lines 33-6)
“Let us” invokes community; this prayer is not secluded to the self. These lyrical lines are packed with energy. By using verbs as end rhymes in “doing” and later “pursuing,” Longfellow generates a quickened sense of action. Also, he leaves the reader in a state of desiring to accomplish those actions. In its closing remark, “A Psalm of Life” teaches an esteemed virtue: patience. “Learn to labor and to wait” (Line 36) stresses the importance of hard work, especially when we find the fruits of our labor lacking. This is not cause to give up; instead we must “wait” and remember to strive forward though those forces pushing back against us seem stronger. The poet hints at fate, yet he calls it “any fate” and merely tells the heart of the listener to be open to it. Fate is not fixed, we have the free will to choose. Yet our actions will weave a resulting destiny awaiting us in our future, so we must choose wisely the steps we take in the living Present.
Ryan P. Tunison is a poet devoted to the investigation of traditional versification, and the perfection of his craft. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Caldwell University, where he worked as editor for the campus literary magazine, Calyx. His poetry has appeared in Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, The Minison Project, Grand Little Things, and The Chained Muse.