Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”

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.

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6 thoughts on “Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”

  1. A poem that inspired me as a boy and learnt to appreciate more later when I read Invictus whch helped Nelson Mandela to keep up his spirits during 27 years in Robben Island.

  2. Seeing this poem again on your site inspired me to go back and read the comments that I made in your August 8, 2016 post. I was gratified that after six years of normal aging (with its associated cognitive decline), I could still remember writing those comments!

    Rather than repeat any of those comments from six years ago, I will add that I feel a kinship with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There is something about his poems that resonates with my view of having goals in old age and continuing to strive to achieve something of benefit to others. Perhaps it’s just reading a book over and over to a grandchild. Or perhaps it’s volunteering. When reading about the tragedies that befell Longfellow during his life (in particular, the death of his second wife that caused him to become greatly depressed), it is a wonder to me that his message about striving in old age could seem to be so positive. Despite growing old, I firmly believe that “age is opportunity no less than youth itself” (from “Morituri Salutamas”); and I hope to leave my own “footprints on the sands of time” for others to follow in.

  3. I have seen Einstein’s brain kept in a jar on a shelf, and a piece of it on a stained slide under a microscope. It actually is pretty indistinguishable from other ordinary brains. But all his memories and experiences, everything that made him who he was, are incapsulated (locked) within it. When in time it returns to dust, as we all will, until death itself is conquered, the best I can say is I hope his spirit and curiosity lives on to encourage the inquisitive among us to continue learning something new each day. I always want to be a better person tomorrow than I am today, even if it only matters to myself. This is what I take away from standing on the shoulders of those that came before.

  4. Thanks so much for your comments Jim. I hadn’t heard from you in a while. And yes this was a repost. The weather is so nice outside I find it hard to want to sit inside and read and write all day. But it sounds like you didn’t mind. And most readers didn’t read the original post 6 years ago.

  5. Thanks as always for your comments Kevin. I love to read them. If only we had more people in this world like you, trying to be a little better each day.

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