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A Psalm of Life -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Guest poem sent in by Sally
(Poem #888) A Psalm of Life
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.

 In the world's broad field of battle,
     In the bivouac of Life,
 Be not like 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.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    Thank you for choosing a poem with the terrorist attacks in mind.  I live
in Washington, DC, and have been getting first hand reports from a niece who
lives in downtown NY in an apartment that had a view of the World Trade
Center.  However, I think almost all Americans have felt personally affected
by this tragedy.

     I'm sure I'm not the only one of your subscribers who has been looking
for poetry that speaks to us at this time.  I hope others will send you their
suggestions.  Regarding "Beat! Beat! Drums!" I agree with your comments that
the poem describes how an idea -- a Cause -- can grip a people.  It does
occur to me that the Cause in the case of Whitman's war was ending slavery, a
Cause worth fighting a war if there ever was one.  There is real irony in the
fact that his poem just as effectively portrays less worthy Causes.

    As I looked through my various poetry books, I found myself coming back
to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's A Psalm of Life.  Here in America, one has to
be struck by the way Americans have risen to the occasion: fire and rescue
workers giving their lives trying to save others; people carrying others down
70 flights of stairs; thousands of people lining up to donate blood.  I think
the Longfellow poem speaks to that sort of spirit.

A note in my book says that, "significantly, [Longfellow] referred to it
variously as both a psalm of life and a psalm of death."


48 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Julian Tepper said...

I think the 5th stanza does not belong.

Julian Tepper

JessY05 said...

I am a high school student writing a literary analysis on poems of the 19th
century. I came across this poem by Longfellow, it is indeed one of the most
meaningful poems I have read. I can indeed agree with Sally when she says
that one has to be struck by the way Americans have risen to the occasion.
Although I am only 16 years old, the tragedies that happened three months
ago has changed my life in ways that could not be described. This poem
should effect many people of this generation, a generation that lives in


HugMaster003 said...

AJ Cooke:
Sorry dear Julian. The 5th stanza does belong. The heck? It's printed three
times...hmm. That what you meant? I know the poem almost by heart, so I know
that's wrong. Damn. Poem is vrong!! Arrg. Have to find another site.
I love this poem. Soo damn good, I'm glad that other people found it as well.
God bless you all.

Kay Campbell said...

My comments on A Psalm of Life... My 6th grade students recited this poem Friday, February 15, 2002. Parents were invited to attend the recital. All grades, kindergarten through sixth, participated. At the end of the presentation one of the parents expressed her response to the poem, A Psalm of Life. She told the principal that the poem deeply moved her. She asked the principal to tell the 6th grade students how much the recital of that poem touched her. No comments were made about any of the other poems recited.

I believe the poem has deep spiritual roots. The bivouac of life refers to a pitching of the tent, temporary headquarters, until the eternal reality comes at the death of the body but not the soul. Bivouac is a French word which refers to a soldier's temporary encampment, without tents. The poem speaks of our temporary life here on earth that appears as a vapor and then disappears. The only lasting and worthwhile mark one can make while camping is to leave footprints on the sand (to better anywhere you are for the good of someone else).

I love this poem. In my sixth grade class this poem was in the old McGuffy Reader. This is the first time I have ever read this poem. It is excellent. Sad to say I have not been a poetry advocate. This poem has changed my attitude toward poetry.

John & Mae said...

I learned this poem more than 50 years ago, but had not called it to mind for some time. Your reminding me of its appropriateness after September 11th is appreciated. I do not find it strange that words rightly spoken or written can have lasting meaning even to generations yet unborn. Record your "Psalm of Life" and "leave footprints on the sands of time".


BobbieSue Leonard said...

one of my residents at the nurcing home i work at was saying this poem. she usually doesnt have her mind at night but she said it without any messups or missing lines. i looked every where for this poem and was so glad to find it here. thank you for posting this poem.

Gerald McMorrow said...

I stumbled on reading the poem while reading another site which referred to it.. I will be 74 in a few months and I had not read the poem in, probably over 60 years. It thrilled me as a boy because of its images and its philosophy. I hope another youngster reads it today and always remembers its verses.

Gerald McMorrow, Hicksville, NY

Hoac255 said...

Lol, hugmaster. This poem is cool. I'm doing it for declaimation at my school
tomorrow and I also memorized it. I don't really understand the meaning of it
'cause I'm only 12 but I still like it. I'm pretty sure it means that life
can make a difference to all but heck I'm too young.

Document Solutions & More said...

I find A Psalm of Life to be an extremely powerful poem. There are many of us on this earth that do not understand that the soul is realy them and not their body. We are all a part of a larger creative intelligence. Our souls are what connects us to this divine, creative intelligence. Each of us comes with a purpose to fulfill and expand that creative inteligence on the physical plain. As children we are more connected to our sould purpose. However as we grow older we allow the "inculturation" of our society to move us away form our souls purpose and more toward our physical self. Yet our ony purpose is to create a world that is so pure that that soul can manifest itself without the illusion of our physical form. The soul never dies.

We must all remember tis truth -
"Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul."

Oral Fernandez
Prescient Ventures Limited
Montego Bay

WScaglione said...

"A Psalm of Life" inspired me 65 years ago when I was in Junior High
School.I memorized it and based all my actions accordingly during those very trying
years.My whole life has been guided by this great poem to this day.I hope Henry
Wardsworth Longfellow is listening where ever he may be.

BABYDADDY4U15 said...

What i liked about this poem was the fact that, it is true that you dont know
when you are going to die. I think that you should live your life day by day,
not week by week. It was touching because it is all true.

Barbara Massie-Anderson said...

I remember this poem from my high school days. It was always my favorite.

nirakar neupane said...

I am a student from Nepal. I love this very poem. And Of course I enjoy to learn this poem of life with my own interpretation+poet's ideas. This poem can be the best inspiration for the people who are frustrated and think their lives as the devastated ones. My friend Utpal and me are the great fans of this poem.

nirakar neupane said...

"A Paslm Of life" is an energetic poem which moves up whenever i am about to get frustrated

nirakar neupane said...

Me and my love love this poem too much. As this poem carries our beautiful memories and beautiful days when we use to recite this poem together.Particulaty this stanza hits our brain everytime.........................
In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Utpal and Biswas

Bill and Susan Walls said...

My husband's great grandfather, William J. Jackman, began keeping a diary on his birthday, September 20, 1863, while serving in the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry and stationed near Culpeper, Virginia. On the page before his first entry, he quotes the 7th stanza of this poem.


Anonymous said...

My mother recited this poem to me and my brother & 4 sisters while we were growing up, and I have continued to recite it to my son, and now my grandchildren. I love it.

Claudia Downs

Tim Turner said...

Striking and marvellous. We do have to watch out and examine though the type of footprints that we leave on the sands of time.

Many of our so called civilisations leave death poverty and pollution in their quest to make everyone else as perfect as they are....

Anonymous said...


JM said...

I'm not a huge fan of Longfellow for the most part. However, this poem is like a Capra movie. It doesn't cover its motives, it's earnest to a fault, and it works. Somehow, it just works. It's a beautiful, humanist work with some lovely turns of phrase and imagery.

Anonymous said...

may i know what is the meaning of this poem....
because we have an observation about this can you help me to do this thing....

Vianne said...

This poem tell us that our soul never dies. My love is still alive and I will see him again. My body will be dust but my soul will be with Donald.

Nodev said...

Nice and Inspirational... i've try to analysis this poems last day and want to share with all of you in

This is part of my analysis :

A Psalm of Life is one of the best-known poems of Longfellow. It has served as one of the most inspirational poems in literature since it was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow, a well loved American poet, is well known for A Psalm of Life and the lessons on life which it illustrates. The primary message or the Subject Matter of the poem, is that “Life is beautiful”. The lyrical lines and inspiring message of the poem has been handed down through the years, bringing hope. Here is a glance -in my point of view-explanation about the poem;

At the 1st stanza, Longfellow wants to tells us that life is not an empty dream, do not waste it out.

“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.”

→even it in a mournful number, life is not an empty dream. Longfellow try to stress his says. He is full of spirit and optimist, he tries to influence readers to feel the way he feel by read this poem.


For complete analysis just find it on

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