A Psalm Of Life Message

What is the message of the poem "A Psalm Of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

Expert Answers
liesljohnson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life" carries a message of hope and encouragement; it basically says that although life is so short and so temporary, the fact that we do eventually die doesn't matter that much, because we can still live life to its fullest. And, by finding purposeful work to do, we can help future generations of people.

Although this optimistic, somewhat simplistic message has no shortage of critics--see the discussion here--people have been long inspired by this poem's message. It helps that it's delivered in an upbeat, short, easily understandable format; that makes it ideal for readers of almost any age to enjoy the poem.

Young readers might be quick to label the poem's message as YOLO: "you only live once," so enjoy yourself. But the speaker's message is slightly different from that. He's not necessarily saying that we should indulge ourselves and take risks; he's saying that we should do meaningful work that fulfills our souls and helps the generations of people that come after us.

Let's check out some of the particular lines that convey the poem's central message:

  • "Life is real! Life is earnest!" This is the speaker's way of encouraging readers to approach life with purpose and passion.
  • "Dust thou art, to dust returnest, / Was not spoken of the soul." This means that, yes, when we die, our bodies physically return to the earth. But that doesn't mean our souls are gone.
  • "In the bivouac of Life, / Be not like dumb, driven cattle!" Here, the speaker is saying that although life is like a temporary encampment, we shouldn't be like silent, passive animals, but instead we should act with purpose.
  • "Let us, then, be up and doing." These words may be the simplest and most motivating of the whole poem. They're saying that we should be active, that we should do something that matters.