Longfellow’s A Psalm Of Life

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Post written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow & Peter G. James Sinclair.

I love to delve into the world of poetry – especially when it is a cold and bleak afternoon where I can cuddle up with a good book. This particular book, that I secured from a second hand bookstore, dated 1909 records the poems written by the American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow between the years 1823-1866.

Longfellow wrote the poem shortly after completing lectures on German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and was heavily inspired by him. He was also inspired to write it by a heartfelt conversation he had with friend and fellow professor at Harvard University Cornelius Conway Felton; the two had spent an evening “talking of matters, which lie near one’s soul:–and how to bear one’s self doughtily in Life’s battle: and make the best of things”. The next day, he wrote “A Psalm of Life”.

The poem was first published in The Knickerbocker attributed only to “L.” Longfellow was promised five dollars for its publication, though he never received payment. “A Psalm of Life” and other early poems by Longfellow, including “The Village Blacksmith” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus”, were collected and published as Voices of the Night in 1839. This volume sold for 75 cents.

In the summer of 1838, Longfellow wrote “The Light of Stars”, a poem which he called “A Second Psalm of Life”.

A Psalm Of Life

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!
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
Find 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 overhead!

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 (1807-1882)

Background notes from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Psalm_of_Life

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