Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Explication Analysis: "Psalm of Life"

The poem “Psalm of Life” dramatizes the conflict between life and death, specifically how each condition is to be perceived and subsequently experienced.  The speaker is an optimistic, compelling psalmist who is concerned with the addressee’s pessimistic opinion of life as a worthless fantasy that is rapidly careening towards inevitable death.  The speaker wishes to express how life and death ought to be observed, and how the relationship between the two is meant to stimulate growth and achievement.  Such notions are illustrated particularly by the style of poetic language, Judeo-Christian allusions, and the Romantic elements of the “carpe diem” theme.

First, it is necessary to illustrate the significance of the poem’s style. Particular literary devices suggest that the poem is meant to be read and/or spoken like a song.  After all, the word psalm is in the title for a reason.  The poem is written in trochaic tetrameter with a quatrain rhyming scheme (“abab” within each four-line stanza). In almost every stanza, there is a pattern with regard to the number of syllables present in the end word of each alternate line (the seventh and eighth stanzas violate this pattern). Typically, the end words in the first and third lines have two or three syllables (“numbers” and “slumbers”), whereas the second and fourth lines have one syllable (“dream” and “seem”). This is significant because the pattern represents not only good use of poetic tempo and consistency, but also the regularity of such arrangements in music. Since this poem is supposed to be read/sung like a psalm, the regularity of syllables is fitting. Enjambment within each stanza also regulates the tempo, just as it would in music. The repetition of words (namely “life,” “act,” and “footprints”) is not only for poetic emphasis but also imitates the repetition of a song’s chorus, which is quite standard in any sort of musical piece.

The first stanza begins the poem by illustrating the perception of life according to the audience and how the speaker initially reacts to such an insight:    

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. (Longfellow ll.1-4)

The phrase “mournful numbers” suggests that the audience is not one but many voices. The speaker is asking that these voices cease their complaining and whining that “‘Life is but an empty dream’!” Presented as a direct quotation to dramatize the audience’s statement, this line/quotation is the basis of the audience’s argument. The statement suggests that life is something of a worthless, imagined fantasy.  However, the speaker interjects: “For the soul is dead that slumbers / And things are not what they seem.” Here, the speaker suggests that life is misconceived if it is interpreted as a dream, because a dream is something intangible and subconscious, and life is not meant to be either of those things. This is also the first reference to “the soul.” This Judeo-Christian rooted essence is a pivotal component of the speaker’s interpretation of life and death, and is referenced throughout the poem.

In the second stanza, the speaker emphasizes the true value of life and how it is meant to be perceived:

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. (Longfellow ll.5-8)

In the first line, the speaker asserts that life is something tangible and has qualities of depth and significance.  In the second line, when “grave” symbolizes death, the phrase declares that the purpose of life is not death. From a stylistic view, the semicolon in this line is meant to denote a long pause to initiate drama and immersed thought. This is because the speaker is proclaiming to the audience that, contrary to their perception, there is meaning and legitimacy to life. The third and fourth lines, “‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest’ / was not spoken of the soul,” juxtapose the restriction of “coming full circle” with the apparent boundlessness of the soul.  The body may disappear just as quickly as it appeared, but the soul is not involved in this expiration.  Quoted from Genesis 3:19, the quote not only supplies evidence of Judeo-Christian influence but also highlights the poem’s imitation of a psalm.      

In the third stanza, the speaker begins to reveal how life is meant to be spent and what exactly gives it value:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act that each tomorrow
Find us farther than to – day. (Longfellow ll.9-12)

In the first two lines, the speaker asserts that death is not ultimately meant to be an emotional experience. Similar to the second stanza, the semicolon suggests that what is mentioned should be considered by the audience, as it is contrasting with the audience’s perception. However, as the third and fourth lines suggest, death is less of an emotional experience and more of a formal conclusion to a life that is meant to be lived by daily progression and successful advancement. 

Before going into further detail on this concept of life and how it is supposed to be accomplished, the speaker must first address the reality of death in the fourth stanza:

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, tho stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave. (Longfellow ll.13-16)

If art is meant to be an application of the human mind and time a chronological measure of events, the speaker is underlining the fact that there is not enough time allotted in a lifetime to experience everything. Additionally, the capitalization of such terms not only suggests the importance of such notions but also the unbreakable authority that these concepts have over humanity.  In the second line (“And our hearts, tho stout and brave,”), the speaker illustrates the heart as the center of emotion and personifies it as having traits of strength and valor. (Here, the reference to “heart” also establishes the substitution of the word for the previously used “soul.”)  This is meant to highlight the fact that while humanity may be strong and valiant in most aspects of life, no amount of power can stop the inevitability of death. The “beating” of the heart (“beating” here has a double meaning, referring to both the regular rhythm of the heart as well as the standard method of striking a funeral drum) is just a physical reminder of that truth.   

Fueled by the notions of the previous stanza, the fifth stanza illustrates the perceived doom of life but corrects this perception with a call to action and reform:

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! (Longfellow ll.17-20)

In the first two lines, the warfare-oriented terms “broad field of battle” and “bivouac” illustrate life as dangerous, exposed, and temporary.  However, despite such circumstances, the speaker asks the audience to “be not like dumb, driven cattle!” but to be more like a “hero in the strife!” This is the contrast and call for reform. Cattle are herd animals, categorized by their collective thought, dependence, and defenselessness. When overwhelmed by the warzone atmosphere of life, humanity may feel more like a bovine than a human being. However, the speaker wants the audience to do the opposite and think independently and respond appropriately. The audience must come to terms with whether they believe anything in life is worth it.

The sixth stanza is possibly the climax of the argument as well as a summarized version of the entire poem:

Trust no future how e’er pleasant!
Let the dead past bury its dead!
Act—act in the living present!
Heart within, and God o’er head! (Longfellow ll.21-24)

The speaker is asserting that the future cannot be trusted since it has not yet occurred, just as the past cannot be altered since it already existed. That leaves the present moment to be the stage of life’s experience and expression. The living present is life, and this stanza embodies the Romantic spirit of the “carpe diem” poems. To live life is to act (the em dash forces a long pause but appropriately indicates a reflective break) and to act is to be navigated by the heart (soul) and God. This is the first and only reference to God, but His appearance here is but another instance of Judeo-Christian influence and highlights the poem’s imitation of a traditional psalm.

In the seventh and eighth stanzas, the speaker teaches the audience how to act and what such actions can do for the community:

            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. (Longfellow ll.25-32)

The feats that individuals of the past have accomplished to become great are meant to inspire and illustrate limitless human potential. Anyone can earn the rank of such awe and excellence.  By “acting” as the sixth stanza suggests with the spirit that the third stanza proposes (“that each tomorrow / find us farther than to – day”), one may leave behind something of a legacy in the “sands of Time.” The repetition of the word “footprints” is meant not only to create emphasis but is also written twice to reflect how footprints come in pairs. Most importantly, it is because footprints symbolize identity.  The shipwrecked man in the eighth stanza is not only a projection of the addressee, but is also the subject of salvation.  Like the addressee, he too believes in life as a pessimistic precursor to inevitable death. His soul slumbers and is caught up in the thoughts and words of the fourth stanza. The word “main” in the second line of the eighth stanza is particularly important, as the archaic literary meaning of “main” is “the open ocean.” Since the man is described as figuratively “shipwrecked,” and given that a ship can be recognized as a vessel of travel and protection, to be stripped of a ship is be stripped of all navigation through the “open ocean” that is life. This could be mentally and physically exhausting, and it is no wonder then that the brother would feel sad and abandoned. However, if the man heeds the speaker’s instructions on how to properly live life, he will “take heart again.”

Finally, the last stanza reiterates the message of the speaker so as to close with positive final remarks:

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait. (Longfellow ll.33-36)  

The speaker is asking the audience to remember the importance of constant performance and to be ready for whatever may come along the way. “Still achieving, still pursuing” refers back to the notions of the third stanza.  In the last line, “labor” refers to the implications of “act” as illustrated in the sixth stanza. However, the word “wait” seems to suggest that one should take the time to observe his or her work and readjust as needed.  While living in the present moment may be the mission and forward-thinking the goal of each day, recklessness is not warranted.  Should irresponsibility be avoided, however, the process of succeeding and doing life right will be accomplished.    

Works Cited
“Genesis – Chapter 3.” Catholic Online, Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.
Lucas, Daniel Bedinger, 1836-1909, “Scrapbook of poetry, newspaper clippings and pressed flowers, by Daniel Bedinger Lucas, c. 1860s (Ms1995-012),” VT Special Collections Online, accessed November 8, 2016, -012_Scrapbook.