Poetry: Longfellow – A Psalm of Life

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
   “Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
   And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
   And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
   Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Finds us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
   In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
   Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
   With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
   Learn to labor and to wait.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life”

I learned of this poem recently while reading through a book written by a pastor. He included only the last verse, but it impacted me. Having read that last verse first, I think it also influenced how I understood this poem. Ironically, I’ve learned that this is one of Longfellow’s most translated and known poems, but I have no memory of reading it before this past week. At first glance, this poem could be taken as follows: how to make the best of life, live to the fullest, and take life’s enjoyments while they are offered. And though I think it does mean that, I see Longfellow including a deeper massage than just living it up with material pleasure. I think that’s why he called this “A Psalm of Life.” Longfellow is imploring the reader to live a full, meaningful, patient, content, and God-focused life.

Our life is not a dream, as many an atheist has said. Life is not the here and now, and we don’t just become worm-food when we die. Further, our life was not meant to be wasted in sloth. Instead, “Life is real! Life is earnest!” Our end is not found in the grave. For though a natural body is sown, it is raised spiritual.

So how then shall we live? We are not to live only to eat and drink, and tomorrow we cease to be. We were made for more than selfishness and the grave. This is not only because the dead will be raised but also because we have been given callings and works to do in this life! So let us live in sanctification, as our bodies meet decay. Worry not of future uncertain, but fulfill your callings of today. For what can we add to our life by worry? And why waste our treasures on fleeting dreams? Our Lord is ever with us, in the shadows and joys life brings.

Thus, Longfellow implores us not to be slothful, using excuses or fear to keep us from God’s work and what makes our life meaningful. Whatever fate might find us, God will meet us in that hour. So be patient, content, and use the gifts God has given you. Treasure the blessing of life you have, do not waste it. Live in the waiting. And know that once this mortal, though full, life is over, there is an eternity waiting for us.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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