A Psalm of Life
A Psalm of Life
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” was first published in The Knickerbocker, a New York magazine, in 1838. A year later, the poem was included in Voices of the Night, the first major collection of Longfellow’s poetry. Readers were immediately drawn to the poem’s inspirational message, and “A Psalm of Life” contributed to Longfellow’s rapidly growing popularity. Between 1848 and 1882, the poem was translated into various languages, including French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, and Russian. By the late-twentieth century, however, “A Psalm of Life” was less highly regarded, being simply considered a historical document that represents a certain mood of nineteenth-century America.
Some of the reasons that “A Psalm of Life” fell out of critical favor are its simplicity, straightforwardness, and its rather outdated mind-set that characterizes a young and ambitious nation. The “Psalm,” as the epigraph says, is the words issuing from “the heart of a young man.” The identity of the psalmist is not revealed, but it could be Longfellow himself, who struggled to come to terms with the death of his wife in 1835. Longfellow had written that he “had kept [the poem] some time in manuscript, unwilling to show it to any one, it being a voice from my inmost heart, at a time when I was rallying from depression.” While Old Testament psalms are often prayers or laments to God, Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” is curiously addressed to another psalmist, one whose grave character is foreign to the Biblical examples. Furthermore,
the young man of the “Psalm” does not ask for help from his interlocutor, but, instead, he looks to himself. In this way, Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” is a quintessentially Romantic document—one where the search for salvation is carried out within the depths of oneself (“egotistical sublime”) more than through “God o’erhead.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born into very fortunate circumstances on February 27,1807, in what is now Portland, Maine, then part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was the second child and son among eight children. His mother, Zilpah Wadsworth, was religious and bookish and his father, Stephen Longfellow, was a prominent lawyer who served in the Massachusetts state legislature and in Congress. The boy was named after a heroic uncle who, with his naval companions, blew themselves up along with their ship, the Intrepid, to avoid falling into enemy hands in Tripoli in the early years of the nineteenth century. Henry grew up with the books of William Cowper, Thomas Gray, and Sir Walter Scott, and he learned to play flute and piano. Longfellow’s father had been a Harvard man, but decided to send Henry to the newer and nearer Bowdoin College, where Stephen Longfellow was a trustee. Henry was a good student and graduated in the same class as one of the most important figures of early American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64). While at college, the young Longfellow expressed the desire to become a writer, but his father wanted him to study for the bar exam. Stephen Longfellow did, however, allow his son latitude to decide for himself. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was offered the new chair of modern languages at Bowdoin after another trustee was impressed by his translation of one of Horace’s odes. To prepare for the position, Longfellow was required to travel in Europe to gain expertise in German, French, Italian, and Spanish.
The nineteen-year-old Longfellow landed at Le Havre in June of 1826. His three-year journey through France, Spain, Italy, and Germany was more one of a restless youth than a serious scholar, but it enabled Longfellow to soak up the sense of Europe’s long-established cultural heritage. Back at Bowdoin from 1829 to 1835, Longfellow, dissatisfied with the available textbooks, wrote five of his own, including Elements of French Grammar (1830) and Syllabus de la Grammaire Italienne (1832). This appears to be the only time Longfellow was interested in academic work, publishing not only textbooks, but also articles on linguistics and literary subjects for The North American Review, and also doing occasional translations. His only so-called creative writing of the time appeared in the travel sketches Outre Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea (1835), an imitation of Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (1819-20). During the Bowdoin years, Longfellow married his first wife, in 1831. In 1834, Harvard College offered Longfellow the position of department head of French and Spanish, but, as was the case at Bowdoin, recommended a sojourn in Europe to prepare himself. With his wife and two of her friends, Longfellow went to Europe in April of 1835. In Holland, he suffered two losses: the miscarriage of his first child and, shortly thereafter, the death of his wife. To escape the trauma, Longfellow spent the rest of his trip immersed in study in northern Europe—Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden—but he also travelled to Switzerland, where he met the woman who would be his second wife, Fannie Appleton. At the end of 1836, after nearly two years in Europe, the twenty-nine-year old Longfellow reestablished himself in the United States at Cambridge, where he lived until the end of his life. In 1839, Longfellow published the very successful Hyperion, a prose romance based on German influences that contained a veiled confession of his longing for Fannie Appleton. Also in 1839, Longfellow published Voices of the Night, a book of verse containing “A Psalm of Life,” which had previously appeared in the Knickerbocker Magazine in October of 1838. Longfellow followed up his first book of verse with Ballads and Other Poems (1841) and his small, antislavery volume, Poems on Slavery (1842). In 1843, Longfellow married Fannie Appleton, whose father purchased for the couple the historic mansion Craigie House, where Longfellow had been a mere lodger since his arrival at Cambridge. Six children and numerous publications would fill up Longfellow’s life during his years at the Craigie House. One of the most important of Longfellow’s publications was Evange-line (1847), the first important long poem in American literature. In 1854, after increasing bitterness at academic duties, Longfellow resigned from Harvard and became America’s first professional poet. While Longfellow seemed to have it all—respect, fame, money, and family—the death by fire of his wife in 1861, the same year as the beginning of the Civil War, tore him apart. Longfellow too was burned on his face, and thereafter grew out his beard. Despite the loss, Longfellow continued his prolific publishing career, which, in 1868, earned him a private audience with Queen Victoria and honorary degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge. With only Tennyson as a possible rival, Longfellow was the most popular poet in the world. Longfellow’s verse continued to be published even after his death from peritonitis on March 24, 1882. His uncollected poems came out as In the Harbor (1882) and the immense unpublished fragment Michael Angelo appeared in 1882-83. Longfellow is now rarely included in what has become considered America’s first literary pantheon—Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson. Nonetheless, America’s first professional, and most popular, poet helped put worldly wings on America’s fledgling literature.
What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist
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! 5
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; 10
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 15
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! 20
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 25
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, 30
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. 35
Learn to labor and to wait.
In the opening stanza, the speaker directly addresses the psalmist. He begins by dismissing the psalmist’s sad poetry, and he rejects as dangerous the psalmist’s notion that human life is a meaningless illusion. If one accepts the logic that life is just a dream, he cautions, one’s soul will not merely sleep, but die. On the surface, human life may appear futile, but the speaker contends that it is actually this sense of hopelessness—and not human life itself—that is the illusion.
Longfellow uses the second stanza to build on the ideas of the first. Because the soul lives eternally, the speaker reasons, life must be real. Note that in the first line there is a caesura, or break, after the word “real.” This caesura forces the reader to pause, thereby emphasizing the idea that life is real. These lines are an allusion to the Bible’s book of Genesis, where God says to the fallen Adam, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” In Longfellow’s poem, the speaker is asserting that although the mortal body will die, the soul is exempt from death.
The third stanza introduces the central theme of the poem: the purpose of life is not to experience pleasure or sorrow, but “to act”—to perform the deeds that will improve the condition of mankind. Note that by this point in the poem, the speaker has ceased to address the psalmist; instead, he is directing his remarks to mankind in general, as is evidenced by his broadly inclusive use of the first person plural—“our” and “us.”
The fourth stanza begins with an allusion to a line from Seneca’s work De Brevitate vitae, which states “vita brevis est, ars longa,” or “Life is brief, art long.” The idea here is that although a lifetime passes relatively quickly, it actually takes a long time to learn how to live well—to decipher the “art” of living. The speaker is suggesting with some urgency, then, that we should live as productive a life as possible, because death (of the human body, not the soul) is always imminent. Note the simile in line 15, which compares the human heartbeat to “muffled drums.” On a literal level, of course, a heartbeat can sound like a drumbeat, but Longfellow extends this idea to suggest that our own hearts are measuring out the backbeat of a steady and irreversible journey toward death. Each beat of our hearts, Longfellow implies, carries us closer to death. If you read the stanza aloud, you will notice that, at this point, the trochaic rhythm is especially steady and even; it sounds as though a drum is beating in the background.
These lines rely heavily on war imagery, as the march to the grave has been transformed to a march to battle. By comparing life to a “bivouac,” a temporary campsite during a battle, the speaker reminds us again of the transience of human existence. He exhorts the reader—who, by implication, is a soldier—to become a hero in this battle and not merely march to his or her death like a cow forced to the slaughterhouse.
In the sixth stanza, the speaker explains in detail how the reader can become a hero. He advises the reader not to hope for the future nor to worry about the past. Instead, in a return to the poem’s central theme, he urges the reader to live actively in the present. The speaker emphasizes his imperative instruction that we “act” by repeating the word twice in line 23. Note how Longfellow draws our attention to the word “act” by manipulating the meter: not only does he insert a caesura between the two “acts,” but, metrically, the two consecutive words are stressed, giving them added force.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker asks the reader to consider past heroes. These “great men,” the speaker indicates, should inspire us to live our lives so fully that we, too, will leave behind records of greatness when we die. Longfellow suggests the idea of a record of greatness by using a metaphor: “footprints on the sands of time.” Even here, however, this metaphor ironically reminds us of the transient nature of life, since these footprints will eventually be washed away by the tide. Nonetheless, they may have a positive effect on the people who live after us.
The “footprints” metaphor of the seventh stanza develops into the central conceit, or governing concept, of the eighth stanza. The speaker envisions a shipwrecked sailor who is lost at sea but observes these footprints in the sand. In this conceit, the sailor represents any discouraged or lonely individual who receives encouragement from the memory of the good deeds of others.
The speaker concludes the poem by exhorting us to live active, courageous lives. He is urging the reader to strive continuously to accomplish good, useful deeds: these good deeds, it is suggested, give life meaning and purpose. The last word of the poem, “wait,” has a few possible meanings; it can mean “to serve” others—in this case, by working or “laboring” diligently; it can mean “to be ready” for someone or some event; or it can mean to be “watchful”—to be on the lookout for good opportunities as well as to be on guard against unexpected events or dangers. The poem ends, then, as it began, with a word of caution and of hope.
A poem against death would be useless, but not a poem against those who might be called the “living dead,” or people who are alive but seem dead on their feet, because they have given up any but the most necessary struggle or challenge and instead seek comfort as their paramount goal. Who are these people? Probably those hit too hard or too many times by circumstances or events. Longfellow was thirty-one when he wrote “A Psalm of Life,” likely writing it to fight back the inertia of depression overtaking him after the death of his wife from the complications of a miscarriage in the latter part of 1835. Her death, he feared, would lead to his own “death,” which means, at least, his ability to live as a writer. Longfellow wrote “A Psalm of Life,” therefore, partially to gain back his will to be a public writer. The psalmist could either be Longfellow’s downcast self, or someone else—someone making a practice of writing morbid verse, or perhaps a depressed person incapable of getting past suffering, pain, or death. The young man fervently attempts to convince the psalmist—who is probably older than him—that one must get past sorrow, yet be sober about what the future may or may not bring and exist in the present, since, in terms of time, the past is dead and the future not yet alive. If one acts in the present, the only time that is fully alive, one gains the best chance of being present to others, enlivening them.
Courage and Cowardice
“A Psalm of Life” is a poem in which a young man entreats a psalmist (and readers) not to be optimistic, but to muster courage in adversity. The crucial element necessary to gain courage is the confidence that one can not only do for oneself, but can also be an example to others. People are not great simply because they do great things, but because they maintained enough courage or confidence to act. In this way, one not only acts for oneself, but for others. Courage to act despite misgivings is, in this poem, considered an egoistic gesture through which community is improved, since if one cannot muster courage to do for oneself, it is hard to do for others. These others are “shipwrecked” on the ocean of life—a cliché because the metaphor works so well, with the ocean buoying one up, but also letting one sink. If it takes courage to set sail on the sea of life, it might be said that the boat stands for the courage to keep oneself afloat. And when that boat of courage
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem, in the style of this one, that speaks of the importance of the future, to convince the speaker of “A Psalm of Life” that future is important and does matter.
- Compare and contrast Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” to some psalms in the Old Testament.
- Why do you think this poem is identified as being what the “young man” said? Do you think people’s attitudes are different at different times in their lives?
- Do research to show how “A Psalm of Life” can be called either an American, Romantic, Transcendental, Unitarian, or a capitalist poem.
breaks up in stormy seas, one will likely drown in a sea of sorrow or underconfidence. Longfellow’s young man tries to muster enough courage so that someday he is able to throw a preserver to the stranded, or, according to the poem, allow the shipwrecked to see that others have been stranded before and have survived to leave their footprints in the sand.
“A Psalm of Life” is made up of nine quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhyming abab (which means the final word in the first and third lines rhyme, as do those in the second and fourth). The regular rhyme pattern gives a reassuring predictability to the poem and, as a result, reinforces the poem’s message that life has meaning and purpose.
The poem is written in trochaic tetrameter. “Trochaic” means that most lines in the poem use trochees, units or feet of two syllables, in which the first syllable is stressed and the second unstressed (as in the word “fleeting”). “Tetrameter” simply means that there are four feet in each line. “Trochaic tetrameter,” then, describes a line of verse that has four trochees. Consider, for example, the first line of the fourth stanza. When we scan the line, or identify its stresses, it appears as follows:
Art is / long, and / Time is / fleet ing ...
As you can see, this line has four trochees; the line as a whole contains eight syllables. If you scan the next line, however, you’ll notice that it has only seven syllables:
And our / hearts, though / stout and / brave ...
The line has four stresses, but only three complete trochees, because Longfellow has eliminated the final unstressed syllable. This dropping of the final syllable in a line of verse is called caTatexis. Throughout the poem, the first and third lines of each stanza generally have eight syllables, but the second and fourth have only seven: they are caTatectic. By leaving off the final unstressed syllable, Longfellow requires the reader to take a brief pause. This short pause slows the pace of the poem, adding to its somber tone.
Not incidentally, the stanza form that “A Psalm of Life” uses—two eight-syllable lines alternating with two seven-syllable lines—is also used in many Protestant hymns. If we remember that a psalm is actually a sacred song, the form of the poem makes a lot of sense; it reminds us that this poem is, in fact, Longfellow’s own inspirational meditation about the high spiritual and moral purpose of human life.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived from 1807 to 1882 and was a poet from the time he was eighteen until the end of his life. This was the age of Romanticism, a time when American literature began to separate from England and establish its own voice and identity. Some of our best-known and most influential writers were active during Longfellow’s time, including Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was Longfellow’s classmate in college), James Russell Lowell, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and, even though the world did not know of her works until later, Emily Dickinson. Of all of these, Longfellow was the most popular in his time. Times change, however. Today, Emerson and Thoreau are remembered as the key figures in Transcendentalism, an important philosophical movement of the time; Poe’s essays, poems, and stories are interesting examples of Romanticism taken to an extreme; and Dickinson and Whitman are admired for original thought and style that seem as fresh today as they did upon first publication. Longfellow is familiar to most readers only because he is frequently assigned in schools. Even so, he is considered an important figure in American poetry, if not for what he achieved, then for the way he brought poetry from the fringes to the center of American culture.
The Romantic Period is defined differently by different literary historians. It is generally considered to be a result of the social turmoil around the globe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Key factors were the American Revolution of 1776 as well as the French Revolution of 1794 and the Napoleonic wars that followed. Old social orders fell, opening new possibilities for individual achievement. The Romantic Period is often considered to have begun in literature in 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. The end of the era is more difficult to estimate: some say that it was replaced by the Victorian Era the instant that Queen Victoria took over the throne of England in 1837, while others mark its end as late as 1870, with the death of novelist Charles Dickens. Any number of alternative dates have been suggested.
One of the reasons it is so difficult to precisely find the end of the Romantic Period is that Romanticism is an attitude, and, to some degree, it has carried on without interruption to this day. Romanticism stressed the importance of the artist, holding the act of imagination more dearly than the ability to follow existing styles. As democracy grew in political systems, it also flourished in the arts, where each person was recognized as having something unique to say that was derived from his or her own experience. Harmony, balance, and idealized perfection were out; the artist as a genius, mad with inspiration, was in. One other stylistic trait was the use of stories from the history of one’s own country for inspiration (as opposed to the Enlightenment artists’ use of sources from ancient Greece and Rome). English Romantic poets include Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly, Keats and Byron. American Romantic poets include Poe, Melville, Bryant, Lowell, Holmes, and Whittier. These last four, along with Longfellow, are collectively considered the “Schoolbook Poets” or the “Fireside Poets,” because they were all marginally Tatented, but their works were popular enough to be taught in literature classes and to collect dust on the shelves
Compare & Contrast
- 1838: French economist A.A. Cournot writes Researches into the Mathematical Principles of the Theory of Wealth.
1998: Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft Inc. and the richest man in the world, is estimated to be worth 40 billion dollars.
- 1838: The Daguerre-Niepce method of photography that produces the “daguerreotype” is presented by physicist François Arago to the Academie des Sciences and the Academic des Beaux Arts in Paris.
1998: Flat-screen televisions and digital video discs are marketed for the first time in the United States.
- 1838: The 703-ton steamer Sirius sails with 100 passengers from London to New York. Within a few hours of her arrival, the 1,440-ton steamer Great Western arrives after a crossing of fifteen days from Bristol, England.
1912: The S.S. Titanic, a luxury liner, sinks on her maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg; 1,513 people drowned.
1998: The movie Titanic becomes the most expensive movie ever made at $200,000,000. The movie sells $700,000,000 worth of tickets in the United States, and, as of June, 1998, grosses $1.7 billion worldwide.
of private libraries. The Schoolbook Poets were the first American poets to be read by the general public, and they paved the way for a generation of writers at the end of the century who were able to make their livings as poets.
Longfellow once said that if a poet “wishes the world to listen and be edified, he will do well to choose a language that is generally understood.” Early critics of “A Psalm of Life” appreciated what they saw as the simple beauty of Longfellow’s language. One early reviewer wrote in The North American Review in 1840 that Longfellow’s poems “are filled with solemn pathos, uttered in the most melodious and picturesque language.... [How] rare is it to find poetry to compare with [‘A Psalm of Life’].” Another critic, writing in The Christian Examiner, stated that “A Psalm of Life” “is equally admirable for its simplicity, manly fervor, dignity, and truth.” But not all of Longfellow’s contemporaries valued his high moral tone and his didacticism—his obvious efforts to teach moral truths. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, writing in Graham’s Magazine, condemned Longfellow for making “didacticism ... the prevalent tone of his song.” Poe’s complaint was not with Longfellow’s moral lesson, as such, but with Longfellow’s method of driving home that lesson: “We do not mean to say that a didactic moral may not be well made the undercurrent of a poetical thesis, but that it can never be well put so obtrusively ....”
Twentieth-century critics have tended to agree with Poe’s assessment that “A Psalm of Life” is overly didactic. Indeed, the word “didactic” surfaces repeatedly in twentieth-century criticism of the poem. Howard Mumford Jones, in an essay titled “Longfellow,” characterized “A Psalm of Life” as an “obvious and awful didactic piece,” though he did appreciate the poem’s “admirable” fourth stanza. And another critic, Alfred Kreymborg, in Our Singing Strengths: An Outline of American Poetry, caustically described “A Psalm of Life” as “nine jingling verses, dripping with a larger number of clichés than any other poem in the language.” Perhaps because of the poem’s obvious moral tone, by the middle of the twentieth century, critics had largely stopped writing about it. Still, in 1993, Dana Gioia, writing in The Columbia History of American Poetry, noted the longevity or continuing fame of “A Psalm of Life”: “This menacingly upbeat poem refuses to die.” Gioia argues that “A Psalm of Life” has remained in favor with popular (as opposed to scholarly) audiences precisely because of its obvious moral lessons. Gioia suggests, moreover, that the very clichés that Kreymborg so disliked are exactly what draw readers to the poem. While preachy clichés or proverbs might not make for good poetry, Gioia reasons, they have tremendous popular appeal: “‘A Psalm of Life’ fails as lyric poetry,” Gioia states, “because it belongs to a different genre, inspirational didactic verse.”
In the following excerpt, Hovey argues that though “A Psalm of Life” was initially widely praised and later criticized as didactic and not representative of Longfellow’s best work, it holds an important place in the American literary canon because it “represent[ed] young America to the Old World.”
Following publication in the Knickbocker Magazine of October 1838, “A Psalm of Life” brought rapid national acclaim to its author, the new Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard. Spread abroad through translations into French (1848), German (1856), Dutch (1861), Chinese (1865), Italian (1866), Portuguese (ca. 1870), Danish (1874), Marathi (1878), Sanskrit (by 1879), Russian (by 1882), and no doubt other languages, the poem brought fame not only to Longfellow but to the fledgling literature of the United States, which it seemed to represent. By the twentieth century it had become what William Charvat described [in his article “Longfellow” in The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870] as “perhaps the most universally known poem in all history.”
Although written after Longfellow had come under the influence of a variety of foreign literatures, this exuberant poem seemed quintessentially American, as American as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, “Rip Van Winkle,” and three Leather-Stocking Tates that preceded it. By contrast, the otherwise best-known American poem, “Thanatopsis,” with its elegant echoes of Wordsworth and the “Graveyard” poets, seemed distinctly European. An early reviewer [writing in the May, 1840 Christian Examiner] was certainly correct when he ascribed the success of “Psalm” to its “simplicity, manly fervor, dignity, and truth,” virtues which nineteenth-century Americans believed their nation represented to the world.
Few can deny the “Psalm” these all-American qualities, yet, ironically, it was precisely because of them that the poem became in this century a prime target for attack by American scholars. Even some of Longfellow’s early admirers found the poem an embarassment. Samuel Longfellow, Henry’s adoring younger brother and official biographer, wondered if it had not “passed the line which separates poetry from preaching” and seemed to agree for once with Poe’s early detraction of his brother’s work when he judged “its didactic merit ... a poetic defect” (1:282). No critical reader since Longfellow’s death has, I believe, judged the poem to be among his best work. It is fortunate, therefore, for Longfellow’s future fame that this poem is now largely unfamiliar to most undergraduates and many literate Americans. No one is now reared on it as our parents or grandparents were, and we need not complain with William Dean Howells that this “least representative even of his earlier pieces” is made to “stand for his whole work.”
Yet even if the oft-prophesied Longfellow revival should never come and the rest of his poems sink still deeper into critical oblivion, “A Psalm of Life” should not be passed by. It is simply too important to be skipped. As the first poem of Longfellow’s maturity to be completed, it is the seed out of which all the rest of his work grew. It led immediately to the composition of four other poems originally titled “Psalms of Life” or “Psalms of Death,” which became the core of Longfellow’s first poetic volume, Voices of the Night (1839), and this volume became in turn the model for virtually all the later poetic collections of the most-admired poet of the day. More importantly, the “Psalm” was the first poetic bud in the flowering of New England, the first sign of lyrical life in the American Renaissance, and was long better known than Emerson’s Essays (1841), The Scarlet Letter (1850), Moby-Dick (1851), Walden (1854), or Leaves of Grass (1855), to all of which it in some sense pointed the way. More clearly than any of them, it seemed to represent young America to the Old World, and, as analysis will show, it was intended by Longfellow to do just that, though in a very curious way. As a major turning point in American literature and American self-understanding, “A Psalm of Life” deserves reconsideration.
Analysis of this brief lyric is not, however, as easy as one might expect. As a number of modern scholars have pointed out, despite the message that has seemed so clear to millions, the poem is not clear to anyone who reads it very carefully. The leading problems are a result of the poem’s unique form. It is at once both a monologue and a dialogue, for the sole speaker in the poem is clearly engaged in an argument with someone else....
When Longfellow produced a confrontation between the morbid mind and the young heart in “A Psalm of Life,” therefore, he voiced a dialogue that runs through his work from beginning to end and which he saw typified in a variety of real and imagined literary figures from virtually every age and nation of the modern West. In general, however, the dialogue corresponds to the voices of two distinct historical eras. The speaker represents the past age of heavenly aspiration, of Tasso, of de Leon, of medieval “Legends Beautiful,” and even of over-aspiring medieval Fausts, while the psalmist-antagonist represents the last hundred years or so of skepticism and despair, of Voltaire, Byron, Heine, de Musset, and Poe. There are exceptions to this scheme; the inquisitors are negative ancients and Wordsworth a positive modern, but in general the dialogue of “A Psalm of Life” is weighted the other way. As he wrote in a scholarly essay of 1833, “Old English Romances,” we must turn to the “holy relics” of the Western Christian past for a “cure,” a means “of changing that morbid habit of the mind, into which the present age has fallen, and of restoring a healthy and vigorous action.”
Yet, “A Psalm of Life” is not a historical poem; its speaker is clearly not a medieval monk or Renaissance poet, but a contemporary who is trying to restore the “healthy and vigorous action” that Western civilization has lost. He speaks Christian truths and looks back to those who have left “footprints on the sands of time,” but he is a modern, involved in “the living Present” and striving to make “to-morrow / Find us farther than to-day” (28, 23, 11-12). In this respect the speaker corresponds to America, the one really bright hope that Longfellow saw in the contemporary world. This hope he expressed full in his three early statements on American literature, “The Literary Spirit of our Country” (1825), “Our Native Writers” (1825), and, especially, “The Defence of Poetry” (1832). In all of these he praises America as young and new, as having surprassed the “practical atheism of a papal hierarchy” and “the dangerous system of politics” found in old Europe, and as expressing
What Do I Read Next?
- The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson includes Emerson’s poems and essays. The important essay “Nature” is excellent for an understanding of Transcendentalism and the intellectual climate of Longfellow’s times.
- Henry Louis Gates edited the invaluable collection The Classic Slave Narratives (1987), four accounts of slavery written by slaves, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). All four narratives were published during Longfellow’s lifetime and make fascinating reading about strength in adversity.
- Van Wyck Brooks was a New England literary critic from the twentieth century who specialized in exploring nineteenth-century literature. His 1958 book America’s Coming-of-Age tells the story of how American literature developed its own identity, distinguishing itself from its European roots.
- Another contemporary of Longfellow was Henry David Thoreau, whose four works—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, and Cape Cod—have been collected in a handsome Library of America volume (1985).
“spirit of activity, that will insure success in every honourable undertaking.”
Longfellow’s intention, therefore, in “A Psalm of Life,” ... was to personify youth, and especially youthful America, in all the excess of its ardent aspiration against the background of despair voiced by the psalmist, the old man, and the other negative voices beneath the youth....
What Longfellow is striving for ... is the objectivity that he later praised in an essay in The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845). He recognized that “most modern writers are subjective,” but he most admired the objective artist.
“As a major turning point in American literature and American self-understanding, ‘A Psalm of Life’ deserves reconsideration.”
who, forgetful of himself, sees only the object before him.... The author is not seen in his book. He never speaks in his own person. (188)
A great writer like Goethe, he stated in a lecture he delivered the summer he wrote “A Psalm of Life,” could be both subjective and objective....
[Longfellow believed] the greatest poets were those who comprehended both characters, especially Goethe, who balanced aspiring Faust with skeptical Mephistopheles, and Dante, who matched the Paradiso with the Inferno. This is the kind of artist America needed. It did not need a prematurely old despairer such as the Poe-like H. Adolphus Hawkins. But neither did it need an all-too-youthful aspirer. In the “Defence of Poetry” Longfellow specifically criticized the “unmanly character” of American literature as caused by the extreme youth of its writers: “Premature exhibitions of Tatent are an unstable foundation to build a national literature upon.”...
As much as Longfellow disliked the despairers of this world and admired the aspirers, the poet he sought for America and tried to be himself was the composite one who “shrinks back and yet aspires, denies and yet believes,” who recognizes that he is vanquished yet still pursues.
When “A Psalm of Life” first appeared in print, ... its enormous popularity in America proved how completely Longfellow had both succeeded and failed. His portrait of America as an ardent youth voicing the age-old aspirations of the West had clearly hit the mark. America saw itself in the poem and loved it. As Longfellow wrote in a letter two months after the appearance of the poem in the Knickerbocker Magazine, “The Psalm of Life seems to have found a response in many hearts. This is what I hoped.” But he had already written his “Second Psalm,” which showed how incomplete the first was, and he must have missed the parodies of the “Psalm” which would have shown an understanding of the poem as having gone too far. He had succeeded in showing America its youth, but America had failed to see that its youth also implied that it should become an adult. Ironically, when America came of age in this century, it turned so violently on its youth as personified in the “Psalm” that the poem succeeded and failed in a new way. The poem succeeded in showing Americans what they did not want to be, but they failed to see that it had intended to do just that. They strove instead to wipe it—and Longfellow—from their literary record, as a blot upon their past. America had clearly grown in age and attitude but not in understanding. It was as unwilling to admit what it had been as it once was to see what it should be, and it blamed, as it once praised, the professor-poet who showed it and the rest of the world what America really was.
Source: Kenneth Hovey, “‘A Psalm of Life’ Reconsidered: The Dialogue of Western Literature and Monologue of Young America,” American Transcendental Quarterly, March 1987, pp. 3-15.
Daniel F. Littlefield Jr.,
In the following essay, Littlefield credits the popularity of “A Psalm of Life” to the fact that it contains “bits of wisdom” that “became stock phrases and household expressions in American society.”
Since the publication of Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” in 1838, critics have attacked the poem for its didacticism or have felt the need to apologize for its triteness. Samuel Longfellow, the poet’s brother, said [in his book The Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow] that the poem had “perhaps grown too familiar for us to read it as it was first read” and that if the ideas had become commonplace, it was the poem that had made them so. According to Edward Wagenknecht [in Longfellow: A Full-Length Portrait,] “any purely aesthetic evaluation” of the poem now would be “an impertinence” in light of its popularity. In his more recent study [titled Longfellow: His Life and Work,] Newton Arvin states that it was “the slack commonplace” of “A Psalm of Life” and other of Longfellow’s “inferior poems” that formed the basis for “their universal currency for many decades.” From Poe onward such poems “repelled more exacting readers,” Arvin says, because the appended moral lessons were second hand: “honorable as they were, they have no intrinsic interest, and they usually do nothing for his poetry but enfeeble it. All this is only too evident.”
This tendency to dismiss “A Psalm of Life” as a literary failure has not explained its popularity. Such critical attitudes as those above suggest a relationship between popularity and lack of aesthetic value. However, the simple charge of poor taste among the reading public does not explain why “A Psalm of Life” has been perhaps the most often read and quoted of Longfellow’s early poems. The explanation lies, rather, in his aphorizing in the tradition of such works as The Proverbs, The New England Primer, and Poor Richard’s Almanack; and a comparative study of method in those works and in the poem should offer a means of evaluating the latter. Therefore, following is an analysis of the poem’s content and a comparison of it to certain passages from Benjamin Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth” to demonstrate a similarity of purpose and method in the two works and to suggest a common ground for their popularity.
“A Psalm of Life” is a singular composition in comparison to the other poems that appeared in Longfellow’s first collection, Voices of the Night (1839). “The Light of Stars,” for instance, which he first called “A Second Psalm of Life,” contains no easily remembered lines and was not “extravagantly popular,” Arvin suggests, because it contained balance and “expressive metaphor” absent in “A Psalm of Life” and other poems. “Footsteps of Angels” consists of quatrains with the same metrical pattern as “A Psalm of Life.” Even the language is similar as the first four lines indicate:
When the hours of Day are numbered,
And the voices of the Night
Wake the better soul, that slumbered,
To a holy, calm delight:
yet neither this poem nor any other from Voices of the Night enjoyed the immediate or subsequent popularity of “A Psalm of Life” which resulted as much from its content as from its technical aspects.
Analysis of these and other poems from the collection reveals the distinguishing feature of “A Psalm of Life”: it is an assemblage of literary odds and ends from the past. Since Longfellow was teaching Goethe at the time he composed the lines, critics have followed the lead of Samuel Longfellow in looking to Goethe and Schiller for immediate influence on the poem. Longfellow’s opening line, for instance, is reminiscent of Goethe’s “Singet nicht in Trauertönen” from Wilhelm Meister, and “Life is earnest!” of Schiller’s “Ernst ist
“... [T]he simple charge of poor taste among the reading public does not explain why ‘A Psalm of Life’ has been perhaps the most often read and quoted of Longfellow’s early poems.”
das Leben” in Wallenstein. In Goethe’s Faust appear “Ach Gott! die Kunst ist lang; Und kurz ist unser Leben” and “Die Zeit ist kurz, die Kunst ist lang.” In Schiller’s Wallenstein appears “Schwer ist die Kunst, vergänglich ist ihr Preis.” A quick survey of a collection of famous sayings (in this case The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases) will show that these quotations are renderings of Hippocrates’s “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult,” which is reflected as well in the works of Seneca, Chaucer, and others, including, interestingly enough, Franklin’s “The Ephemera.” “Dust thou art, to dust returnest” suggests many possible sources, the strongest of which is “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis, 3: 19).
Among these examples are most of the memorable lines from “A Psalm of Life.” They were “bits of wisdom” which Longfellow borrowed and made so popular that they became stock phrases and household expressions in American society. The extent of literary borrowings suggests an attempt to write a pastiche, which might explain its difference from his other early poems. The production and its public reception bear a striking resemblance to that of Benjamin Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth,” perhaps the best-known pastiche in American literature. In fact, the reader is struck by a number of literary parallels and coincidences in the two works.
“A Psalm of Life” is Longfellow’s denial that life is “an empty dream” and is an affirmation of life’s reality. The emphasis is upon acting in the face of fleeting time and of the knowledge that our hearts “are beating / Funeral marches to the grave.” This theme is also reflected in Father Abraham’s remarks on idleness: “If Time be of all things the most precious, wasting of Time must be, as Poor Richard says, the greatest Prodigality, since, as he elsewhere tells us, Lost Time is never found again; and what we call Time-enough, always proves little enough.” Longfellow’s injunctions to “Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!” and to “Act—act in the living Present!” resemble Franklin’s “So what signifies wishing and hoping for better times. We may make these Times better if we bestir ourselves.” Longfellow concludes his poem with
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
And Franklin concludes, regarding industry and lost time, “Let us then up and be doing, and doing to the Purpose; so by Diligence shall we do more with less perplexity.”
Evidence at hand gives no indication whatever that Longfellow had “The Way to Wealth” in mind when he wrote “A Psalm of Life.” However, he certainly would have been familiar with Franklin’s method. If one discounts the conspicuous line as literary coincidence, the similarity of themes can still be explained by each writer’s use of a common source: time-tested and, in some instances, time-worn ideas, to which well-read men had easy access. In both instances, the ideas were well-received because the public felt comfortable with them, probably having heard them expressed before, in one form or another. Further analysis leads to the conclusion that Longfellow’s purpose and method were similar to those of Franklin and that this purpose and method had a direct bearing on popularity.
Franklin said in his Autobiography that he tried to make Poor Richard’s Almanack “both entertaining and useful,” and finding it generally read in nearly every neighborhood of the province, “consider’d it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcefuly any other books.” He filled the spaces on the calendar “with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of procuring wealth, and thereby securing virtue.” Franklin brought “[t]hese proverbs, which contained the wisdom of many ages and nations” together in “The Way to Wealth,” which he used as a preface to the Almanack of 1858. “The bringing of these scatter’d counsels thus into focus,” Franklin wrote, “enabled them to make greater impression.” “The Way to Wealth” was an immediate success. Newspapers on the Continent reprinted it, it appeared in broadside in England, there were two translations into French, and the clergy and gentry distributed it in great numbers among their parishoners and tenants.
Longfellow, on the other hand, apparently had no public motive in composing “A Psalm of Life,” which he wrote in an attempt to cope with disappointment at having his overtures of love rejected by Frances Appleton. He kept the poem in manuscript for some time, not showing it to anyone, “it being a voice from my inmost heart,” he said, “and expressing my feelings at a time when I was rallying from the depression of disappointment.” Critic Lawrance Thompson indicates [in Young Longfellow] that at the time, Longfellow was unable to work out ideas for himself and had to find support in his favorite authors, the most outstanding of whom, in this instance, was Goethe. As most critics have done, Thompson attributes the inspiration for “A Psalm of Life” to Goethe, but at the same time he admits that Longfellow knew Hippocrates’s famous phrase before he found it in Goethe’s work and aptly points out that the many scholarly guesses at the source of the poem have clearly demonstrated that the ideas “had passed current” for centuries. In effect, Longfellow had brought “the wisdom of many ages and nations” into focus in shaping a personal philosophy. Upon its publication, the poem was immediately popular. Young men delighted in it and found inspiration in its call to action. Longfellow realized, as Franklin had, that he had given something of note to the public. A few weeks after the poem appeared, he wrote in his journal: “My ‘Psalm of Life’ seems to take effect here and there. This is a great pleasure to see the working of it upon other minds.”
Why did a poem of such personal expression become so popular that it became commonplace? The ideas were certainly not new, startling, or revolutionary. Therefore, Longfellow’s appeal must have been due in a large measure to his mode of expression, like Franklin’s in “The Way to Wealth,” a focusing, in one place, of aphoristic counselings. Both works were pastiches. Both were designed to teach man ways to improve himself, one materially and the other spiritually, one publicly and one privately. Franklin’s work reflected the pragmatic materialism of the eighteenth century and Longfellow’s the romantic idealism of the nineteenth. Both chose to express the “wisdom of the many ages” in an aphoristic style. Franklin directed his work toward the poorly read masses, so he chose a style which would make his teachings easy to remember. People of all ages could not remember “The Way to Wealth” in its entirety, but they could easily remember aphorisms which taught the value of going to bed early, rising early, and keeping one’s nose to the grindstone.
Aphorisms also served Longfellow’s personal purposes in “A Psalm of Life.” “A torn jacket is soon mended; but hard words bruise the heart of a child” and “As turning the logs will make a dull fire burn, so change of studies a dull brain” and “A thought often makes us hotter than a fire” sound as if they could have come from the pen of Benjamin Franklin. Longfellow published these and other aphoristic statements at the end of a volume of his prose works, and he merely followed his bent for aphorizing in “A Psalm of Life.” When it was finally made public, people received it well for many of the same reasons people had received “The Way to Wealth” and, before that, such works as The Proverbs and The New England Primer; but Longfellow’s addition of regular meter and exact rhyme ensured that readers remembered not just the aphoristic statements about fleeting time and the body’s returning to dust, but whole stanzas or even the entire poem. By giving commonplace ideas the qualities of wise sayings and focusing them in one place, Longfellow, like Franklin and other writers of aphorisms, ensured their popularity among contemporary and subsequent generations.
Longfellow’s aphorizing explains why the readers who delighted in “A Psalm of Life,” as Samuel Longfellow said, “did not stop to ask critically whether or not it passed the line which separates poetry from preaching, or whether its didactic merit was a poetic defect.” They accepted its didacticism because they recognized the aphorism, just as people since ancient times had recognized it, as a vehicle for transmitting moral, religious, social, or philosophical precepts, and because the sayings themselves were philosophically comfortable and familiar “truths.” Reading “A Psalm of Life” in this light eliminates the necessity of apologizing for it as a poetic production by making possible an assessment of it on another basis. It was completely successful in terms of the adaptation of mode to apparent purpose. The poem preached, in much the same way that Poor Richard’s Almanack—and The Proverbs and The New England Primer before it—had preached.
Source: Daniel F. Littlefield Jr., “Longfellow’s ‘A Psalm of Life’”: A Relation to Method to Popularity, The Markham Review, Vol. 7, spring 1978, pp. 49-51.
Gioia, Dana, “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism,” in The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 64-96.
Howard Leon, Literature and the American Tradition, Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1960.
Jones, Howard Mumford, “Longfellow,” in American Writers on American Literature, edited by John Macy, Horace Liveright, Inc., 1931, pp. 105-24.
Kreymborg, Alfred, “The Fallen Prince of Popularity,” in Our Singing Strength: An Outline of American Poetry (1620-1930), Coward-McCann, Inc., 1929, pp. 97-115.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Volume II (1837-43), edited by Andrew Hilen, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Volume I, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1973.
“Longfellow’s ‘Voices of the Night’,” in The Christian Examiner, Vol. 28, No. 2, May 1840, pp. 266-69.
“Longfellow’s ‘Voices of the Night’,” in The North American Review, Vol. L, No. CVI, January 1840, pp. 242-48.
Parrington, Vernon Louis, The Romantic Revolution in America, 1800-1860, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1972.
Poe, Edgar Allan, “Longfellow’s Ballads” in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol. 6, Colonial Press Company, 1856, pp. 374-91; originally published as “Ballads and Other Poems” in Graham’s Magazine, Vol. 20 Nos. 3 & 4, March-April 1842.
Wagenknecht, Edward, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Poetry and Prose, New York: Ungar, 1986.
Wagenknecht, Edward, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Wendell, Barrett, A Literary History of America, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, The Sufferings of Young Werther, New York: Fredrich Ungar, 1977.
This book is called the first German psychological novel, and it concerns a sensitive, artist type hopelessly in love with a girl engaged to someone else. Werther, who eventually commits suicide, is just the type Longfellow was trying to rescue with his “A Psalm of Life.”
Spiller, Robert E., Willard Thorp, et.al, eds., Literary History of the United States, New York: Macmillan, 1960.
The editors of this volume view American literature shaped more “by a hope for the future than by a clinging to the past.” The 1550-page volume covers the time from the colonies to midway through the twentieth century. An excellent portrait of Longfellow is included.
Suchard, Alan, American Poetry: The Puritans Through Walt Whitman, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Suchard gives one of the more sympathetic views of Longfellow in recent literary criticism, downplaying his weaknesses and emphasizing his historical significance.
Waggoner, Hyatt H., American Poets, revised edition, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.
A chapter about the Schoolbook Poets gives a few page each to Longfellow, Holmes, Bryant, Lowell and Whittier, explaining their differences as well as their individual strengths and weaknesses.