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A Psalm of Life


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A casual reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life"

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A Psalm of Life

  1. 1. A Psalm of Life By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  2. 2. A Psalm of Life Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his wife Frances and their two sons, circa 1849. "A Psalm of Life" was first published in the Knickerbocker Magazine in October 1838 when Longfellow was 37 years old. It also appeared in Longfellow's first published collection Voices in the Night .
  3. 3. Urgency <ul><li>The main message of the poem is that we need to act with some urgency. </li></ul><ul><li>This urgency is communicated through a trochaic rhythm, which gives the poem a driving, forceful tone. The music of the lines reinforces the rushed mood: </li></ul><ul><li>Life ΄ is real ΄ ! Life ΄ is earn ΄ est! </li></ul><ul><li>And ΄ the grave ΄ is not ΄ its goal ΄ ; </li></ul>
  4. 4. The soul does not die <ul><li>The urgency might seem a little strange, since in the Christian cosmos Longfellow inhabits, we have an eternity: </li></ul><ul><li>Dust thou art, to dust returnest, </li></ul><ul><li>Was not spoken of the soul. </li></ul>
  5. 5. So isn’t it strange to hurry? <ul><li>And it gets even stranger… </li></ul>
  6. 6. The message seems to be: Hurry up, you’re going to die! <ul><li>We must act so that we can get “farther than to-day” and yet </li></ul><ul><li>our hearts, though stout and brave, </li></ul><ul><li>Still, like muffled drums, are beating </li></ul><ul><li>Funeral marches to the grave. </li></ul>
  7. 7. Now is the only time we have <ul><li>“ Time is fleeting” we are told. We have neither the past or the future. We have only the present: </li></ul><ul><li>Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant ! </li></ul><ul><li>Let the dead Past bury its dead ! </li></ul>
  8. 8. But why? <ul><li>If the soul lives forever, and if this world does not last, why strive? </li></ul><ul><li>Why work? </li></ul><ul><li>Why not eat, drink and be merry? </li></ul>
  9. 9. Longfellow makes emotional appeals <ul><li>He uses contrasting images, suggesting that people who don’t act aren’t really free. </li></ul><ul><li>They are “like dumb, driven cattle” </li></ul><ul><li>while someone who does act lives the larger and freer life of “a hero in the strife.” </li></ul>
  10. 10. Great people acted <ul><li>He appeals to the image of “great men” who made their lives “sublime*.” </li></ul><ul><li>But he gives no examples of what they actually accomplished with all their striving. </li></ul><ul><li>* “Characterized by nobility; majestic. . . Inspiring awe; impressive.” </li></ul>
  11. 11. Except footprints in sand <ul><li>Even that image is ambiguous. They left their mark upon the world, but it’s the most transient of marks. </li></ul><ul><li>What is more fleeting than a footprint in the sand? </li></ul>
  12. 12. Wait! There’s more! <ul><li>Someone else might see that footprint, </li></ul><ul><li>And it might help him take heart: </li></ul><ul><li>A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, </li></ul><ul><li>Seeing, shall take heart again. </li></ul>
  13. 13. Is this persuasive? <ul><li>Struggle and strive, because you’re going to die, but in your struggle you may leave fleeting footprints that others who are struggling toward death might see, and this will give them the courage to continue struggling. </li></ul>
  14. 14. Until they die too <ul><li>In some ways, the poem makes no sense. </li></ul>
  15. 15. And yet <ul><li>It has satisfied millions of readers and been memorized by generations of school children. </li></ul><ul><li>Though Longfellow doesn’t describe any of the important things that are done in this world, we know that some things are important. </li></ul>
  16. 16. Striving in the face of death <ul><li>Heroic people have made advances against the real enemies of humanity: </li></ul><ul><li>Disease </li></ul><ul><li>Poverty </li></ul><ul><li>Ignorance </li></ul><ul><li>Fear </li></ul>
  17. 17. The poem resonates <ul><li>For readers who share Longfellow’s Christian sensibility that this word, though transient, is important. </li></ul><ul><li>Here we can “fight the good fight.” We can not only accomplish much good, we can also provide an inspirational model for those who come later. </li></ul>
  18. 18. Labor and Wait <ul><li>While we work, we are also waiting. </li></ul><ul><li>Waiting for what? </li></ul>
  19. 19. Real life <ul><li>The soul does not die. Life is real. </li></ul><ul><li>Things are not as they seem. </li></ul>