Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” – A Poem About the Passage of Time

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.jpg

The passage of time steals our youth, our vitality, and any permanence that we might hope for. How best to respond to our situation? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) tried to answer this question in 1838 in his poem “A Psalm of Life.” They contain some of my favorite lines of poetry.

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

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.

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.

Epilogue – Still, as I have argued in my recent book on the meaning of life, the wisdom that may come with age makes death even more tragic. The wisdom which took so much time and effort to achieve vanishes with our passing, since it is mostly ineffable—incapable of being transmitted to the young. They have to learn it on their own … as they age.

So for now, until we have eliminated death, the passage of time drives us inexorably toward our end. And this is a reason to lament our fate … and battle to defeat it.

7 thoughts on “Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” – A Poem About the Passage of Time

  1. I agree. The prospect of death renders individuals lives meaningless. But that doesn’t really bother me. The search for meaning is folly. Yet I do it all the time anyway. And that is absurd. Immortality would bring its own set of problems, as so many Vampire stories have pointed out. We live in a tragedy. I say: laugh at it!

  2. A few contemporary philosophers have responded to the question of life’s meaning similarly. Thomas Nagel for example said we ought to respond with an ironic smile. But I do think that life is basically tragedy. – JGM

  3. Your statement “The wisdom which took so much time and effort to achieve vanishes with our passing” is actually disproved by the existence of Longfellow’s Poem and your inclusion of it in your commentary. I found his poem enlightening and uplifting…and your epilog somewhat dour. Rather than wasting time lamenting our fate, we should we spend our time working to achieve something or in helping others. We might not leave a beautiful poem behind, but we will make some mark on the world. I think that is what Longfellow was talking about.

  4. Good point, Curt, and on a very long time scale I agree with you.

    But in the near term (the next few centuries or so), the details of each of our lives are being more and more efficiently recorded and stored. These digital “memories” will live on far longer than those of our ancestors, who had to rely on stone tablets and paper to record the details of their lives and thoughts. One could think of these digital memories as a form of immortality (but certainly not the form that futurists envision). Effectively, each of us currently living will leave behind a digital representation of ourselves that can be accessed and scrutinized by anyone. In a hundred years, someone interested in the meaning of life will stumble across this interchange and, with a few key strokes, pull up incredible details on each of our lives, trying to analyze why we made the responses that we did. Who knows, Curt, you might become the subject of some future philosophy (or psychology) class based on your commentaries on JGM’s web site!

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