What is the attitude of "A Psalm of Life?"

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"A Psalm of Life" is a poem addressed to a "psalmist" from "the heart of [a] young man." Thus, it is optimistic ("Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!--") and spirited ("Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal"). 

Despite it being the message of a young man to a psalmist, or author of wisdom, the narrator accounts for the fact that life can be short; therefore, it is important not to waste time: "Art is long, and Time is fleeting..." He emphasizes the urgency of the present ("Act,—act in the living Present!") and the importance of leaving one's individual mark ("Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time"). 

The final stanza urges the importance of action, particularly in the interest of making an impact on future generations ("Footprints, that perhaps another...Seeing, shall take heart again"). However it also encourages the virtues of patience and persistence ("Learn to labor and to wait"). 

The attitude of the poem is similar to that of Rudyard Kipling's "If," which was also a poem of advice—though, more characteristically, advice from an older man to a younger one. The Longfellow poem is unique, for it personifies the heart of a youth.

beateach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a poem that teaches a lesson, a didactic poem. Therefore, the attitude of this nine-stanza poem is inspirational as indicated by its subtitle, What the Heart of the Young Man Said To The Psalmist. The heartfelt message that Longfellow teaches with the poem is to live life to the fullest because life is not just an empty pastime. He says, “Life is real! Life is earnest!” In addition, he admonishes the reader not to follow along but to “Be a hero in the strife!” Each man should find a way to be a hero, an individual, in his own life. Longfellow states that great men accomplish things that leave a lasting impression and that all men should find something they love to do and do it well for when we leave this earth we can leave our mark with “Footprints on the sand of time.”