Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Questions and Answers

Start Your Free Trial

A Psalm Of Life Theme

What is the theme of the poem "A Psalm of Life" by H. W. Longfellow?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life" encourages the listener to makes the most of their lives, putting an emphasis on the present instead of the past or the future. The speaker asserts that life is not meaningless and that the living should make the most of the time they have before death. Thematically, the poem deals with how meaning is created in one's life

Expert Answers info

M.P. Ossa, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseCollege Lecturer, ESL/TEFL Instructor

bookM.A. from Chapman University

calendarEducator since 2008

write5,705 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and Business

Published in October of 1838, A Psalm of Life is an open call for all humanity to do what is right; to choose the path of goodness no matter how hard it may be. We only live once and, essentially, life is short no matter how long you stay in this world. Hence, the idea of just going through life as if it can be taken for granted is a grave mistake.

Therefore, the only way to live is by making life worth living, and drawing some "good" from it.

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

This being said, the themes of the poem include using time effectively, making the best of the time that we have, and just making "good". A worthless life that is wasted away reflects an irresponsible and derelict nature. It is basically acting abhorrently since life is a precious gift that all should do something with. Those who waste away alive are already dead, basically; for what is life if not time to take the human experience as far as possible?

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

Adrienne Marsh eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseCollege Professor

calendarEducator since 2013

write68 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Arts, and Social Sciences

In his poem, “A Psalm of Life,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow argues that individuals should live active, full lives rather than passively allowing life to slip away. In the first two lines of the poem, the speaker asserts: “Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!” Here, the speaker counters religious theology that denigrates the value of life in anticipation of the afterlife. In contrast, Longfellow’s speaker suggests that “Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal.” Thus, instead of passively waiting for the afterlife, the speaker urges individuals to act and to progress.

The speaker also differentiates between body and soul. In the second stanza, the speaker states, “Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul.” Here, the speaker posits the composition and decomposition of the body as it turns back into dust upon death. The soul, however, lives on and will not return to dust. Rather, the soul has the ability to progress, to move forward, and to seek activity.

In the final stanza, the speaker states:

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

In other words, the speaker urges individuals / readers to engage in activity.  Life allows for achievement and for pursuit, argues the speaker, and the individual can “Learn to labor and to wait.”

The ambiguity of the final line has led critics to question what the speaker is waiting for. A common interpretation is that the speaker is suggesting that individuals can lead active lives on Earth while simultaneously waiting for their eternal life spent in heaven.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

dhruvtolani35 | Student

Can you give more information about the message of the poem "The Psalm of Life"?

vivekrupender | Student


The poet tells us that life is real and should not be treated lightly. It provides us with great opportunities for making our life better. He says that grave is not the ultimate goal of life.


Life is said to be a battlefield and a journey over the ocean . We have to excel as a hero in the battle of life and leave our footprints on the sand of time.

vijaykumar | Student


kunj | Student

we should have a positive attitude towards life.since our life is short and our mission is vast,we should begin our work at once without being preoccupied with the result of our actions.........

check Approved by eNotes Editorial
lit24 | Student

The lines  "Act,— act in the living Present !
Heart within, and God o'erhead !"
lucidly express the main theme of the poem.

Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" belongs to the genre of poetry called 'Carpe Diem' poems. The Latin term coined by Horace in one of his odes  means, "Seize the day and place no trust in tomorrow."

Longfellow makes an earnest appeal to his readers not to worry about the past or fantasize about the future but to take maximum advantage of the present to achieve something valuabe and worthwhile:

"Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant !
Let the dead Past bury its dead !
Act,— act in the living Present!"

check Approved by eNotes Editorial