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A Psalm of Life

Can a piece of poetry rekindle the desire to live life to the fullest in times of depression, loss of faith, utter despair, various obsessions and addictions, which in the aggregate are parts and parcels of our daily lives? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” raises the spirits and teaches a few lessons that have not lost their topicality with the lapse of time. It is one of those life-affirming poems that will never go out of fashion, because the themes it touches upon are timeless and can be interpreted in various ways, provoking heated discussions about the earthly and divine matters.

The uplifting mood of the poem is anticipated in the title. The poem begins with exuberance and optimism, which only reinforce by the end of the poem. The heart of the young man gives valuable pieces of advice on how to live and enjoy every single moment of earthly life. The poet wants to persuade the readers that life is temporary and death is not the end of the “journey”. Longfellow truly believes in the afterlife and, therefore, all his aspirations are directed toward the spiritual realm. He uses an unknown speaker to impart the ideas and feelings, which filled his heart and mind after the death of his first wife Mary. In my opinion, Longfellow could write this poem at the verge of breakdown, talking himself into carrying on, for no one knows what awaits us in the nearest future. Another version is that Longfellow was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and wanted to share his contemplations not only with his colleague and friend at HarvardUniversity, but with a wide readership. Every line is packed with meaning, reiterating the idea that life is beautiful and worth living despite all the hardships and tragedies.

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The poem is composed of nine stanzas four lines each. The rhyme scheme is abab. Although the poem is full of depressing vocabulary, such as “empty”, “dead”, “grave”, “sorrow”, “funeral”, “battle”, “departing”, its overall tone is optimistic, which is demonstrated with the help of words and phrases, such as “stout and brave”, “living present”, “hero”, “still achieving”, “Footprints on the sand of time” (“Longfellow’s A Psalm Of Life”). Longfellow uses various literary devices to render the contents of his heart with sincerity and sophistication. Among the most salient are such devices as paradox “Life is but an empty dream!” (line 2), religious allusions “TELLme not, in mournful numbers” (line 1), “Let the dead Past bury its dead!” (line 22), similes “Still, like muffled drums, are beating”(line 15), “Be not like dumb, driven cattle!” (line 19), personification “Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!”(line 21) (“Longfellow’s A Psalm Of Life”), etc. Longfellow encourages the readers to contemplate life and for this purpose he uses metaphors, namely life is fleeting and life is a battlefield. Some critics consider Longfellow as a hack imitator of the English Romantics and view his poetry as shallow and derivative in many ways. I would dare to disagree with those who purposefully underestimate the poet’s contribution to American Literary Romanticism. The latter is a period in American literature distinguished by the appeal to imagination, intuition, and emotions. Longfellow’s poems are translated into dozens of languages. They are studied and discussed by readers and outstanding critics, and the interest in the poet’s output has not waned yet.

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The poet discusses a few important topics in general stokes, avoiding over personalization and allowing the readers to contemplate and arrive at their own conclusions. At first, he underscores the idea that death is inevitable. However, he does not mean that it is the final destination of an individual’s journey called “life”. He is against taking life for granted. “Time is fleeting” and there is no use living in fear and sitting in the background, waiting for the better things yet to happen. Instead, he insists on standing up and living one’s life as if there is no tomorrow. Longfellow calls for active position in life, as it is the only way not to regret the things done rather than think how different life could be: “Act, — act in the living Present! / Heart within, and God o'erhead!” (lines 23-24) (“Longfellow’s A Psalm Of Life”). The most contentious issues that the poet touches upon, are within the realm of spirituality. Many people believe in the afterlife, but still many feel that the belief in God and the existence of soul is imposed on them.

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The most meaningful are the last three stanzas, which reiterate the idea of making the most of one’s life with one’s “own hands”. Longfellow emphasizes that life should have a greater purpose or, in other words, our everyday decisions and deeds will certainly influence the subsequent generations. He encourages the readers to make their positive contributions to the societies in which they live: “And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time” (lines 27-28) (“Longfellow’s A Psalm Of Life”). Why is it so important to be remembered by good deeds? The Christian concept focuses on loving God and loving others as we love ourselves. Like a true believer, the speaker, or rather the poet (in fact, they are inseparable), celebrates lending the helping hand to the brother in need: “Footprints, that perhaps another, / Sailing o'er life's solemn main, / A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, / Seeing, shall take heart again” (lines 29-32) (“Longfellow’s A Psalm Of Life”). The last stanza inspires the readers never to give up, be very persistent in achieving their goals, and learn to be patient, since success does not come overnight.

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Longfellow’s success and immense readability is accounted for the poet’s ability to look on the bright side of things, celebrating the love of life, which stems from the heart that is in peace with God and other human beings. His optimism is propelled by faith, which he seeks to demonstrate to a wide audience, disseminating basic Christian ideals, such as the existence of soul, afterlife and brotherly love. As long as people are interested in what is beyond the realm of the physical world, the poem “A Psalm of Life” would be reread and reinterpreted, for it is thought provoking, stirring and encouraging.

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