Think About It

A Psalm of Life: The Poem

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | February 16, 2013

“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime.
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Beth Pears, my niece, has been teaching high school English for over 20 years.  During a recent conversation with her we spoke of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry and one of her favorite poems, "A Psalm of Life." I knew a few lines but I don’t think I had ever read it in its entirety. 

Longfellow wrote the poem "A Psalm of Life" shortly after completing lectures on German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and was strongly inspired by him.  He was also inspired to write it by a heartfelt conversation he had with friend and fellow professor at Harvard University, Conway Felton.  

According to Lawrance Thompson, in his book "Young Longfellow" (1938), the two had spent an evening “talking of matters, which lie near one’s soul – and how to bear one’s self doughtily in Life’s battle, and make the best of things.” The next day he wrote "A Psalm of Life."

Written in an ABAB rhyme scheme in 9 stanzas varying between 7-8 syllables per line, it was first published in "The Knickerbocker" magazine in 1838. Longfellow was promised $5 of its publication, though he never received payment. Later, this poem along with several others was collected and published as "Voices of the Night" in 1839 which sold for 75 cents.

Here is the poem. Next week I will share some of my reflections on the poem.

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 though 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 tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

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 the 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. 

In my next column I will share some of the ways this poem has impacted me. Meanwhile, I would invite you to read it … read it … read it … and then … .

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu 
Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer
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