Summary and Analysis

A Psalm of Life cover image

“A Psalm of Life,” by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), was once very widely read and just as widely admired. Today, however, the poem is often mocked for its allegedly incoherent imagery and its supposedly empty rhetoric. In the poem, the speaker responds to Biblical (specifically, Old Testament) teachings that all human life is vain and that human beings, made of dust, eventually return to dust. The poem’s subtitle, “What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist,” is significant. First, the subtitle implies that the speaker of the poem is willing to question traditional wisdom, or at least some interpretations of that wisdom. Second, the subtitle identifies the speaker as a person in an early stage of life, so that his apparent rejoinder to parts of the Bible can be read (if one so chooses) as a reflection of his youth, particularly given the passion and enthusiasm with which his views are expressed. In any case, the poem was widely read, often memorized, and broadly influential, particularly in the nineteenth century.

The opening lines of the poem can seem somewhat daring. The young man seems explicitly to reject portions of the Bible that teach that human life is merely vain or empty. Perhaps the young man is thinking, for instance, of such verses as Psalm 39:5, where the psalmist says to God (in the King James translation), “Behold, you have made my days as a handbreadth; and my age is as nothing before you: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.” Longfellow’s speaker dismisses such “mournful numbers” (that is, such gloomy, depressing ideas expressed in the “numbers,” or metrical feet, of poetry). Already in its first three words, the poem is confrontational. Ironically, then, a poem that is often interpreted today as a reiteration of tired clichés can be read, in some ways, as courageously argumentative.

In lines 3 and 4, the speaker seems to suggest that the spirit is truly dead only in those who slumber, failing to take advantage of the possibilities of life. These possibilities, as the poem will later argue, include possibilities for virtuous and noble actions. Thus the poem can be read more as a rejection of tired passivity and of spiritual defeatism than as a rejection of Biblical teachings as a whole. The young speaker seems most concerned that human beings will interpret Biblical teachings about the vanity of human life as excuses to be indolent and apathetic. He seems concerned that people will be focused so much on the next world that they will forget and neglect their responsibilities while they are living. He accepts the Christian idea that the flesh is merely dust (see Genesis 3:19, King James Version: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”), but he also accepts the Christian...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)