An Introduction to A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

About the Poet:  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not just an influential figure in the literary and cultural circuit of 19th century America, but he was also America’s most loved poet who penned some memorable works such as Paul Revere’s Ride, Hiawatha, Evangeline, and many more. He was also the first one to translate Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

Longfellow achieved fame and admiration in national and global parlance through his poetic career, despite being hit repeatedly by personal tragedies such as the untimely deaths of his two wives. He is one of the few American writers honored in the Poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey. He made significant contributions to the American literary tradition by manifesting how American poetry could be linked to European traditions and thought. He is widely remembered now as a poet, traveler, linguist, and Romantic who identified with European traditions while staying true to his American roots.

About the Poem:  A Psalm of Life by H.W. Longfellow was published in his first collection of poetry, namely Voices in the Night, in 1839. A Psalm is one of those poems that have become mainstays of national culture, admired by generations of readers long after studying it in school. As the name suggests, the poem is a spiritual utterance on the meaning of life to be read and be influenced by. To this date, the poem remains on one of Longfellow’s most read and loved short lyrics.

The Setting of the Poem: A Psalm of Life

A Psalm of Life by H.W. Longfellow is a beautiful poem with a very spiritual setting. In this poem, the poet directly adds to the minds to inspire them to achieve something substantial in life. The mood of the poem is somber and didactic. However, at no point does the poem fall into the danger of sounding preachy since the poet imparts his pearls of wisdom through the poem using a wonderful style, in the most heartfelt way.

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1st Stanza: Mournful numbers: reference to the verses in the Bible which speak about the futility of life; Empty dream: a dream that is over;

Soul is dead that slumbers: Slumber means sleep. So an inactive soul is as good as dead.

2nd Stanza: Life is Earnest: Life is serious; Grave: Death;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest: Reference to the biblical knowledge that “from dust we come, to dust we go”, stressing upon the futility of life.

3rd Stanza: Destined end: The life that has been decided for us

4th Stanza: Art is long, and Time is fleeting: Fleeting means temporary. There is a lot of Art in the world and not enough time to cultivate or appreciate it; Stout: Strong; Muffled Drums: Drums that have been made to beat softly; Funeral marches to the grave: We are all getting closer to Death every day.

5th Stanza: World’s broad field of battle: World has been compared to a battleground; Bivouac: camp; Dumb, driven cattle: cattle that is constantly directed by the shepherd; Strife: Hard work, struggle

6th Stanza: Dead Past: Events that have taken place and are done with; Heart Within: With all one’s heart

7th Stanza: Sublime: grand and special; Departing: leaving; Footprints: marks; Sands of Time: History

8th Stanza: Sailing o’er life’s solemn main: On life’s serious journey; Forlorn and shipwrecked: lonely and devastated; Take heart: take courage

9th Stanza: A heart for any fate: the courage to face any consequence; Pursuing: going after something; Learn to labor: learn to work hard

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