Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Questions and Answers

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What are the figures of speech used in the poem "A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? The full poem here... WHAT THE HEART OF THE YOUNG MAN SAID TO THE PSALMIST 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.Life is real! Life is earnest!And the grave is not its goal;Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,Was not spoken of the soul.Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,Is our destined end or way;But to act, that each tomorrowFind us farther than today.Art is long, and Time is fleeting,And our hearts, though stout and brave,Still, like muffled drums, are beatingFuneral marches to the grave.In the world's broad field of battle,In the bivouac of Life,Be not like dumb, driven cattle!Be a hero in the strife!Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!Let the dead Past bury its dead!Act, - act in the living Present!Heart within, and God o'erhead!Lives of great men all remind usWe can make our lives sublime,And, departing, leave behind usFootprints on the sand of time;Footprints, that perhaps another,Sailing o'er life's solemn main,A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,Seeing, shall take heart again.Let us then be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the first stanza, the speaker tells the psalmist not to say that "Life is but an empty dream," employing a metaphor that he does not want the psalmist to use. A metaphor compares two unalike things—in this case, life and a dream—by saying that one thing is another (without using like or as, as a simile would).  

In the second stanza, the narrator says that "the grave is not [Life's] goal," employing metonymy. Metonymy is when the poet substitutes a detail associated with a thing for the thing itself. In this case, grave is standing in for death. Because we typically automatically associate graves with death, we understand the meaning of the figure of speech.

In the third stanza, Longfellow employs a simile (a comparison of two unalike things that uses like or as) in the lines, "And our hearts, though stout and brave, / Still, like muffled drums, are beating . . . " He compares our hearts to muffled drums. The first of these lines also employs personification of the hearts, giving them the human qualities of being stout and brave. Personification is when the poet gives human traits to something nonhuman.

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In the first stanza of "A Psalm of Life," the speaker tells the Psalmist not to say that life is an empty dream because a soul that slumbers is dead. A person has a soul. That person/soul cannot be asleep in order to dream of life. Therefore, the person/soul must be awake.

Longfellow is playing with the ideas of sleep, wakefulness, death, and life. However, he does not take the usual route of equating death with sleep and life with wakefulness. Here, the speaker argues against the metaphor of life as a sleeping dream because a soul (in life or in death) cannot be asleep. A soul and the living person must be awake. This poem is about wakefulness in the sense of being aware and living for the present. 

In the second stanza, life and the soul are personified. 

In the fifth stanza, the speaker argues against passive living, using the simile "Be not like dumb, driven cattle!" 

In the seventh stanza, a complex metaphor involves the description of footprints as two things: life experiences and as the impressions of those experiences on others. In other words, "footprints" are both the events of a life and the signification/significance of those events as others see them.

The phrase "sands of time" is metaphoric. Sands in an hourglass measure time, but the actual increments of time are lengths of temporal duration. "Footprints on the sands of time" is a metaphor for the impressions a person's life leaves on others. 

One of the main themes of the poem is to focus on the present. Therefore, the future and the past, including those who see our footprints, will take care of themselves if we "make our lives sublime." 

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