“A Psalm of Life” is a poem about living in the moment, about seizing the day and taking control of one’s life. The poem is written as a young man’s thoughts on the words of a psalmist. A psalm is a usually religious hymn or song of praise, and as such is often focused on the afterlife. Here, we have a young, spirited dissention, asserting that life is not to be wasted, focusing endlessly on the far future, but rather to be experienced to the utmost, right now. Indeed, by designating the poem as a psalm, Longfellow is informing us before we even begin to read that the piece is praising life.
“Life is real!” the speaker says, “Life is earnest!/And the grave is not its goal.” The grave is not its goal. The goal of life is not to placidly await death, or whatever may come after death – the speaker is here exclaiming that the point of life is to be lived. It is not simply to exist, or to passively experience – it is to explore, to learn, to change! Consider the following lines:
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Finds us further than to-day.
Here we see a further emphasis on this concept – life is defined by action and personal growth. It is not stagnation, and it is “not enjoyment” or “sorrow” – it is not simply these reactionary feelings, but rather something that must be kindling within oneself. A bit later in the poem, our young speaker implores the listener to, “Be not like dumb, driven cattle!/Be a hero in the strife!” Life is not to be lived in a herd, following the crowd and mindlessly absorbing your environment; it is instead a battle to be fought and won.
So, life’s goal is not to follow the herd, and it is not passive experience. It is instead action, the creation of experiences rather than the witnessing of them. Living, rather than awaiting death.