“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”.
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.