I can’t remember the first time I read the poem ‘A Psalm of Life’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but it stuck with me. I remembered a line of it, and years later, typed it into a google search hoping that the poem I’d remembered would present itself near the top. Luckily, it did, and I’ve kept a printed copy of it ever since.
As far as I can remember, this is the first poem that I read and loved of my own accord. I was young, but the words are easy (enough), and the theme – universal.
I decided to do a little bit of background research on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, when I got the idea to journal about this poem. I found a really helpful bio here.
Though I’ve loved this poem for a long time, I have never analyzed it. The words, the rhythm, the tone – they make the poem beautiful without the meaning taken into consideration. This is exactly the type of poem that is perfect to memorize and recite. The easy/flawless rhymes make the poem move as it travels the space between tongue and ear, and to me, it’s unforgettable.
As I was gathering information on the man and his poems, I scanned the Wikipedia page dedicated to this poem (yeah, yeah). It says there that Longfellow was heavily influenced by Goethe.
Is all of literature just a never-ending game of ‘Seven Degrees of Separation?’
It’s a beautiful and complex spider-web of influence and inspiration, isn’t it? Everything I read tends to lead me to another author or another piece of work; It’s really a beautiful journey. So far this phenomenon has let me to add ‘Agnes Grey’ and work by Goethe to my to-read list so far this year (not to mention watching Perks of Being a Wallflower and Jane Eyre movie adaptations).
Back to Business…
As I am a novice at analyzing poetry, I looked up some basic facts about the poem. Now that I see the type of things used to describe a poem, I recall learning a bit about it in school. Small steps!
The Rhyme Scheme is ABAB laid out in nine quatrains of 7-8 syllables per line.
Reading back over the poem again and again I’m struck by the absolute philosophy of ‘Carpe Diem’ it exudes.
The poem is opened with a setting: a young man is speaking to a psalmist (one who composes sacred songs).
From there, the psalm/song is directed towards us, as readers.
The basis of the poem is laid out in the first three stanzas: life is not meaningless, and I’ll tell you why. I really like the following lines::
‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.’
Basically he is saying that though our bodies will wither and die (Ashes to ashes, Dust to Dust), that is not the end of our soul. No one ever said the soul stops existing, and so we should strive to be the best that we can: our spirit will outlive us.
The speaker urges us not to take life for granted (4th Stanza)::
‘Art is long, and Time is fleeting.
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, and beating
Funeral marches to the grave.’
I can’t get over the beauty of those lines, though they are slightly terrifying. The speaker admits that death is inevitable, that the gift of life is ultimately death, and what follows inspires us to make the best of what we’ve got (lines 21 & 22)::
‘Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!’
To further convince us, he reminds us of the great men who live immortal in our memories (Stanza 7)::
‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;’
Overall I would say the point of this poem it, if not to rile us from our mundane everyday routines and strive to better the world, then to at least convince us that it is worth sticking around to experience all we can for the sake of our souls, who will survive us.
To me, it’s an inspiring and uplifting poem. It reminds me that there is something deeper to humanity, something that doesn’t necessarily die with us. Whenever a human being dies, their memory lives on in those who knew them, and perhaps that’s as far as it goes – but whether or not we make the history books, our lives have left a footprint on this Earth. If you’ve ever earned a dollar, if you’ve ever comforted a friend or colleague, you’ve made an impact in this world. Just the act being born in itself changed the lives of two (or in some cases only one) human being(s) on this Earth forever.
Life is not purposeless, it’s what we make it, and that is an important thing to remember.