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A Psalm Of Life


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summary of A Psalm Of Life by H.W. Longfellow

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A Psalm Of Life

  1. 1. A PSALM OF LIFE “The Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, subtitled ‘What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist’, is a poem that was first published in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1838. The poem strives to look at the human attitude toward life and death. The major theme of the poem is that living is not the only thing humans are put on earth for. While heaven may be the goal at the end of life, humans are also sent to earth to live productive and generous lives as well. In the opening stanza, Longfellow begins by saying “Tell me not in mournful numbers/Life is but an empty dream.” With these lines Longfellow establishes that he does not want to hear from those who feel that life is only time spent on earth and that there is nothing after one dies. Longfellow indicates that things may not be as they seem. In the second stanza, Longfellow exclaims that life is real and earnest, but the grave is not its goal. Dust to dust did not refer to the soul just the physical body. Longfellow believes that the soul lives on after death. Longfellow also reiterates that life isn’t about joys and sorrows. Instead, life is about doing some good while on earth so that the world is left a better place than it is today. Time is personified as a person with a capital letter, as if it is a proper noun. Time is described as fleeting, which means that it is not permanent. Rather, it is something temporary in this world. Another comparison Longfellow makes is to compare life to a battle field. From the day people are born until the day they die, they are leading and participating in wars and battles. Longfellow indicates that people shouldn’t be so caught up in the “bivouac of Life” that people fail to live. This indicates that people should not become complacent with life. Instead, mankind should make the most of every minute of existence in this world. One of the greatest verses of the poem lies in the words “Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And departing leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time.” This stanza points out to the reader that mankind should take as example all the great men that have come before, who are evidence that not everyone is forgotten after their life on earth has ended. Everyone should strive to be like them and leave footprints on others and the world. Longfellow leaves the reader with the idea that people should live life by working through the time on earth to make life a wonderful place. In the end, mankind must wait to find heaven and toil here on earth until that day comes. Written in an ABAB rhyme scheme with 9 quatrains, the poem varies between 7-8 syllables per line. Longfellow includes some use of repetition with words such as “Life is…”, “Act—act” and “Footprints”. Other sound devices the poet instills include alliteration is words such as “grave—goal”, “broad battle”, and”Learn—labor”.
  2. 2. Rich with philosophical grandness the poem “Psalm of Life” has a message that is still as relevant today as it did for more than a century ago. It serves as a reminder to make the most of this time on earth people call “life”, because it is a fleeting moment. "A Psalm of Life", by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was published in October of 1838. It is a poem of encouragement, telling the reader not to waste life. Longfellow is sure to establish that life is real, and it will end soon. He wrote this poem at a fairly young age, yet he has a deep and accurate insight of life. The content of the poem is not especially unique. The speaker is involved in the first person perspective, where he is directly addressing the reader. The tone is neither positive nor negative, but is strictly honest. The tone remains the same "encouraging" style from beginning to end, and there is no change of tone. The only tension found in the poem is that between life and death - Longfellow writes about how every living thing is affected by both conflicting states of being. The word choice in "A Psalm of Life" was obviously carefully picked. An adjective is never repeated, yet the poem reads perfectly. Each word has its own meaning, and its own unique take on life, and every word adds something important, even vital, to the "life" of the poem. The rhythm also flows flawlessly. The rhythm scheme is an eight syllable line followed by a seven syllable line. The poem does not stray from that simple rhythm once. Imagery is the sole method of expression in the poem. Longfellow paints a word picture in each stanza that allows the reader to see more clearly what he is describing. Metaphors and Symbolism is rampant - in fact, the poem is almost entirely comprised of these things. The form of the poem is very basic. Each stanza is four lines long, making the poem a quatrain, and the rhyme scheme follows the pattern "ABAB, CDCD, EFEF..." etc. for each of the nine stanzas. Each stanza also has a recurrent rhythm pattern: 8 syllables, 7 syllables, 8 syllables, 7 syllables. Analyzing the poem even deeper, you will notice that even the punctuation plays an important role. Exclamation points are used to establish emphasis on a particular line. There is no pattern to the punctuation, which makes it even more beneficial to strengthening the meaning of a phrase. Overall, it is very obvious that "A Psalm of Life" is a well thought out poem. Life is not full of sadness. It is an empty dream. A dream presents many pleasant things which vanish as soon as it breaks. Similarly, some pessimistic people consider life as unreal and empty as dream. If they find any happy thing, they don’t accept and enjoy it. They discard it as unreal too. Such people are dead in their spirit. They value life in terms of its physical aspect.
  3. 3. But the poet empathetically says that life is real and earnest. It furnishes great opportunities for bettering ourselves. Grave or death is not the destination of life. The Bible contains a remark, 'Dust thou art, to dust returnest'. It is a remark about body. Body vanishes but the soul does not dissolve. Death cannot trap soul. Life means to act at present. It is neither for enjoyment nor for to joy and sorrow. Instead of paying attention to joy and sorrow, we ought to act, we must not waste time in expecting a more suitable time to come. We should think that tomorrow is far away from today. Therefore, we must act right from now. Death envelopes all- the strong and the weak, the brave and the coward. All are marching to each other’s grave. Time runs away and every body of us are losing our valuable period of life day by day. Life is getting shorter day by day. In this short period a long art cannot possibly be tried and achieved. Life is a temporary rest camp. We are all soldiers in the world's broad field of battle. When we grow tired, we take rest in that rest camp. The poet urges us to be creative and to be a hero in the battle. We must not surrender. We must not be driven like dumb cattle. Dumb cattle lack creativity. But we must be brave enough to face our life's battle. Further the right time for work is present. Neither future nor past is suitable. Future may seem very pleasant. But it is not dependable. Similarly, past is already passed and is buried like a dead body. Thus we are left with only present. We should act in the living present. In our heart we must keep faith in God. God will reward us for our work. While working, we have to follow the footprints of great men in past. By reading their biography and by following their footprints and examples we can make our own lives great and sublime. Our own greatness and sublimity will be recorded as examples for the future generations too. If any person gets disappointed or fails in his material or spiritual pursuits, he may look at the examples, set up by us, and may get adequate consolation. Hope of success is regenerated in him. Instead of being doomed to utter despair, he feels vibrant with hopes. Therefore the poet advises us to get rid of sloth and be brave enough to face any situation in our lives. We must not cease at any; point of time. Pursuits and achievements must continue. Our endeavour must also continue with undiminished faith in God. SUMMARY A Psalm of Life, a lyric of religious emotion was published in October of 1838. This poem is taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s first volume of poems. A ‘psalm’ is a sacred song, an invocation to mankind to follow the path of righteousness. A Psalm of Life is a blow to the
  4. 4. pessimistic attitude of taking life lightly. The poet encourages his readers not to waste life that life is short and is going to end soon. The poem highlights the views of the poet about how to live life and that there is only one life and therefore, we should make a good use of it. The poem consists of nine stanzas, each containing four lines. The poet begins the poem by asking us not to tell him in sorrowful verses that life is an empty, meaningless dream. According to Longfellow, a person who spends his sleeping is already dead. Such a worthless life misguides other human beings. Finally, irresponsibility does not reflect the true human nature. The second stanza begins with two phrases, ‘Life is real! Life is earnest!’ The poet uses an encouraging tone to say that life is real and serious. Life should not be treated lightly. Moreover, the poet says that death is not the ultimate goal; life does not end with death. “Dust thou art, to dust returnest” is not applicable to the soul, this quotation is applicable only to the body. The third stanza of A Psalm of Life is about the way of living. The poet tells us that our way of leaving should be only based on enjoyment or mourning. The aim of life is to act wisely each day so that we can make a better future. Stanza four is about the work assigned to us and about the time which is flying. “Art is long, and Time is fleeting” means that the work given to us is too long and time-consuming. The poet encourages that under such situations, our hearts still remain stout and brave and are beating funeral marches to the grave, like the drums covered with cloth. The message that the poet wants to convey through this stanza is that one should lose courage under any circumstance. In the fifth stanza, the poet compares the world to a battlefield as well as a temporary camp for troops. The humans are compared with troops. He asks all the people to live and fight their battles within the given period of time. The poet asks us not to be like the dumb cattle which is driven by others, because of its lack of direction and determination. The poet asks us not to trust on the future even if it seems pleasant in the sixth stanza of A Psalm of Life. The past incidents must be forgotten away. The aim in life should be to act courageously at present and not to lose faith in God. Lives of great men remind us that we can make our own lives noble and elevated that is we can reach great heights. Finally when we die, we can leave behind us our footprints (noble deeds) for others to follow our path. The noble deeds which we leave behind should be such that an unhappy and shipwrecked man, sailing over the sea of life, would be confident and take courage, following our example. In the final stanza of A Psalm of Life, the poet asks us to begin at once with courage without thinking about the consequences of the actions. He asks us to achieve our aim and learn to work hard and wait patiently for rewards. “A Psalm of Life” is well written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem is very much centered to all his thoughts and clearly advising through his poem. The poet is showing a
  5. 5. different angle to live this life and he is constantly saying that there is only one life and hence one should make a good use of it. Therefore he uses appropriate words which can directly attack anybody’s mind. One should know how short this life is and how to make it more meaningful. There is an inspiration provided in this poem which is very interesting to understand. The writer himself has written this poem at fairly young age and thus it’s more accurate for all youth audience. This poem tells how to live life happily without giving up to any of difficulty that can come across your way. This is really an encouraging poem which tells reader not to waste any part or little time in life. Poet is very positive and he is constantly saying that this life is real and it will end shortly. The poet was young when he wrote this poem; this shows how good thoughts he was carrying at that age. This can surely encourage youth to think even deeper and change view to see this life. The actual theme of the poem is not especially exceptional. The poet is caught up in the first person point of view, where he is honestly advising the reader. The manner used in this poem is neither optimistic nor pessimistic; however it is firmly sincere and truthful. The overall poem is based on one point and that point is Life. Poet constantly says that one should not waste time in unimportant tasks which are fruitless and which will keep a person away from dreams. This life is very meaningful and it depends on the person to increase the meaning and sense in it. One should strictly avoid laziness and work for their dreams. Then, what is life? Why to approach dreams if life is too short? Why to make good use of time? All these questions get their answer in this poem. The poet guides youth audience to follow their dreams instead of wasting time in making fun of others. All unnecessary tasks like sleeping for long hours, laziness in work and much more are fruitless and will increase the burden of living at the end of life. Here poet turns to his next point very cleverly. He then explains about the situations at the end of life. Images and descriptions are the sole methods of idiom in the poem. Poet paints a picture of word in each canto that lets the reader to observe more evidently what he is telling. The poet is explaining each sentence in his own writing style. Deep meaning is hidden inside in each of word. The true meaning of life and the small parts involved in it are wisely revealed in this poem. Life is too short and so what to wait for? Simply fulfilling dreams and making dreams to come true is only choice that anybody can have. On the whole, it is very clear that “A Psalm of Life” is a well-considered out poem.