According to Longfellow, in his poem "A Psalm of Life," there is an important distinction between the body and the soul. The body is the essence of the present, while the soul becomes the essence of life after death.
The author describes what he perceives the soul to be in the first stanza:
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. (1-4)
When Longfellow writes, "Things are not what they seem," he is telling the reader to pay attention, something he will repeat later in the poem.
Longfellow insists that there is much more to life than living with death as the end result. He argues that what makes the soul truly alive is what a person does in life. What is done in life (he seems to say) keeps the soul awake and alive. Life offers many experiences, but more so it demands one to assume the responsibility to live a thriving and productive life.
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.
Living well means taking advantage of life's possibilities—
These possibilities, as the poem will later argue, include possibilities for virtuous and noble actions.
The author proposes that what is most important is making certain with each new day, we "find us farther than today" (12).
The fourth stanza states:
Art is long, and Time is fleeting... (13)
Referring to Art may be the author's nod to the lasting effect artists leave upon the world with what they accomplish in life—able to inspire for countless years to come. Time is fleeting might echo the Bible verse that life on earth is like a swiftly passing vapor or mist:
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:14 (NIV)
Longfellow issues a challenge: we need to be mindful of time's passing and do something worthwhile. Again, he warns us to pay attention: do not be led mindlessly on without thought to what we do. We cannot be like "dumb, driven cattle" (19). Instead be heroic in the face of the difficulties all must face. In a person's lifetime, action is the call to arms.
Most importantly, Longfellow writes of our responsibilities to those who come behind us. He acknowledges that "great men" leave behind "footprints in the sands of time" (25-28).
We are asked as readers to consider those symbolic footprints, which refer to the impact people of greatness make upon the world. Those accomplishments were impactful because of what they chose to do with the time they had. Even after they are dead, this endowment may lift up and encourage those who follow, those that may be struggling to find their own way on the changeable sea of life:
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again. (29-32)
So while Longfellow reminds us that life is fleeting and we all shall die, he stresses the importance of physical action, of doing. His goal is not to encourage the reader to do for self, but to find meaning in one's efforts so another person may benefit. The soul, he says, is not meant to die as the flesh does, but it also cannot do the work of the body. Whatever valuable thing any one of us can do must be finished now, for the soul will rest after the body has died...when the body's opportunity to work is over. The body does the work; the manner in which the soul rests depends upon what the body has done.
We may infer that the soul waits upon that which the body does in life in order to experience a meaningful existence beyond death. A life of achievement is the soul's true triumph.
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!