A Psalm of Life Summary

A Psalm of Life” is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in which a young man disagrees with a psalmist who claims that life is an “empty dream.”

  • The psalmist alludes to Genesis 3:19: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” The poem’s speaker, however, states that this line refers only to the human body—not to the soul.
  • The speaker exhorts the reader to make life “sublime” in spite of the knowledge of impending death.
  • At the poem’s end, the speaker calls upon the reader to strive, achieve, and enjoy life.

Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1146

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“A Psalm of Life,” by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), was once very widely read and just as widely admired. Today, however, the poem is often mocked for its allegedly incoherent imagery and its supposedly empty rhetoric. In the poem, the speaker responds to Biblical (specifically, Old Testament) teachings that all human life is vain and that human beings, made of dust, eventually return to dust. The poem’s subtitle, “What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist,” is significant. First, the subtitle implies that the speaker of the poem is willing to question traditional wisdom, or at least some interpretations of that wisdom. Second, the subtitle identifies the speaker as a person in an early stage of life, so that his apparent rejoinder to parts of the Bible can be read (if one so chooses) as a reflection of his youth, particularly given the passion and enthusiasm with which his views are expressed. In any case, the poem was widely read, often memorized, and broadly influential, particularly in the nineteenth century.

The opening lines of the poem can seem somewhat daring. The young man seems explicitly to reject portions of the Bible that teach that human life is merely vain or empty. Perhaps the young man is thinking, for instance, of such verses as Psalm 39:5, where the psalmist says to God (in the King James translation), “Behold, you have made my days as a handbreadth; and my age is as nothing before you: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.” Longfellow’s speaker dismisses such “mournful numbers” (that is, such gloomy, depressing ideas expressed in the “numbers,” or metrical feet, of poetry). Already in its first three words, the poem is confrontational. Ironically, then, a poem that is often interpreted today as a reiteration of tired clichés can be read, in some ways, as courageously argumentative.

In lines 3 and 4, the speaker seems to suggest that the spirit is truly dead only in those who slumber, failing to take advantage of the possibilities of life. These possibilities, as the poem will later argue, include possibilities for virtuous and noble actions. Thus the poem can be read more as a rejection of tired passivity and of spiritual defeatism than as a rejection of Biblical teachings as a whole. The young speaker seems most concerned that human beings will interpret Biblical teachings about the vanity of human life as excuses to be indolent and apathetic. He seems concerned that people will be focused so much on the next world that they will forget and neglect their responsibilities while they are living. He accepts the Christian idea that the flesh is merely dust (see Genesis 3:19, King James Version: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”), but he also accepts the Christian idea that the soul is eternal (7-8). In the poem’s second stanza, he seems to refute possible misinterpretations of the Bible—misinterpretations that imply that merely because fleshly life ends in futility, all life is empty and without purpose. In many ways, the poem can be read as a call to spiritual arms.

Stanza 3 suggests that the purpose of life is neither fleshly “enjoyment” nor worldly “sorrow.” Neither of these feelings is important. Instead, the purpose of life seems to be to make a kind of progress that can be interpreted as spiritual improvement rather than as any kind of worldly success (11-12). The speaker fully concedes that life, when viewed from a merely fleshly or materialistic perspective, ends in death:

. . . our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave. (14-16)

However, to admit that fleshly life ends in death is not to accept the view that life as a whole is pointless. Indeed, the inevitable death of the flesh makes other kinds of life all the more important and valuable. The speaker, in other words, fully accepts that the flesh will return to dust, but he does not for that reason think that human life is without point or purpose. Humans should not behave like beasts who lack both souls and reason (19-20), nor should they accept naïve, unrealistic, utopian visions of the future (21). They should not be depressed or discouraged by uninspiring events or persons of the past (22). Instead, they should seize the day (carpe diem), taking full advantage of the gift of present life (23). Yet no sooner does the speaker make this assertion—which might easily be misinterpreted as self-indulgent and hedonistic—than he immediately reminds himself and his readers that God exists and that humans have important responsibilities to their creator (24).

The lives of great humans (the speaker proclaims) teach us that we can make our mortal lives “sublime” (that is, lofty, elevated), even though our fleshly lives end in death. If anything, Longfellow’s poem can be read as an attack on certain other kinds of “carpe diem” verses, which argued that since life ends in death, we should hurry to enjoy life’s sensual pleasures. Longfellow’s speaker is aiming for something higher, more noble, more spiritual.

The imagery of lines 27 through 32 have been mocked by various critics. The idea that we can leave behind us “Footprints on the sands of time” (28), which might encourage later sailors on the sea of life, has been accused of being confused and self-contradictory. How (it has been argued) can ephemeral footprints last long enough to encourage anyone for very long? This is a good question. Perhaps Longfellow’s speaker would answer by saying that he concedes that all worldly accomplishments are merely temporary when viewed from the perspective of eternity, but they are not therefore worthless. Longfellow’s own life is an instructive example: he inspired many people in his own day and a little later. He no longer inspires as many readers as he once did. Does this fact mean that the inspiration he gave to his contemporaries was pointless and without value? Apparently his contemporaries felt otherwise.

In the poem’s final stanzas, the young speaker seems, in fact, mainly to be addressing people of his own day, and perhaps of his own youthful generation. He speaks in the present tense, and the “us” he refers to surely includes people of his own time. The poem is an exhortation to make the most of any present moment, to work hard (not to slack off), and to demonstrate the courage and determination needed to deal with “any fate” (34). Present-day achievements and pursuits (the speaker implies) are not pointless. But perhaps the most intriguing word in the poem appears in its final line: “Learn to labor and to wait” (36). Wait for what? One answer to that question is implied by lines 8 and 24: wait for the end of fleshly life and the beginning of an eternal, spiritual life, ideally spent in heaven with God. 

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