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 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.


“A Psalm of Life” was first published in the October 1838 issue of The Knickerbocker; or the New York Monthly Magazine. The poem was published in the Voices of the Night in 1939.

The dramatic lyric written first tells the reader “What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.”  Focusing the poem on two specific characters one being the heart of a young man and the other being a Psalmist—an author of biblical or religious songs. The heart of a young man disagrees with a position/purpose in life with the psalmist. It can be interpreted that this disagreement is on the purpose of life as the young man argues “Tell me not, in many ways, life is just an empty dream.” The heart of the young man makes declarative statements to back up his position in the scene between the two. The language of the poem, primarily the stance of the heart of the young man, is about the character’s specific conviction for what he believes in life, and that is to act as each day has a purpose to it: “act in the living present … Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime/ And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.”

The trochaic meter and exclamation throughout give the poem a vigorous pace. Stoddard referred to the poem’s theme as a ‘lesson of endurance’.  The author denied this poem was merely a translation of Goethe as an English acquaintance suggested but admitted he may have drawn on some inspiration from him as he was going through his writing process and quoted as saying, ‘Let the fact go for what it is worth.’

“A Psalm of Life” showcases the author’s spirituality, something most readers can connect and relate to when it comes to the big question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’.  The optimistic theme shines through which is appealing, deep down we all want to be a better person and make a difference knowing that in the end, we’ll leave our own legacy and imprint that means something. It’s poignant to note that he wrote the poem in the aftermath of his grief a few years after his wife passed away. Reflecting on his own life struggle, Longfellow a positive outlook that makes this piece particularly inspiring perhaps more so now in modern times than at the time it was written.

Bibliography and Further Readings  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Life;  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poetry Foundation; Longfellow: A Psalm of Life, Voices of the Night.

Credits Composed by Cameron Slack, Fall 2018


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American Poetry and Poetics Copyright © 2017 by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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