Longfellow’s Psalm of Life: Action, not Existence, Precedes Essence

Longfellow first published his poem “A Psalm of Life” in 1836 in the literary magazine The Knickerbocker. As one might intuit from the name of the publication, that magazine was New York-based and Yankee-centric. A much wider readership was reached two years later when the poem was included in the very first major published collection of Longfellow’s poetry, Voices in the Night.

The Second Great Awakening was only just beginning to crawl to an end and so the heavily religious content found a naturally receptive audience across the country. Even those not undergoing any particular spiritual awakening could find inspiration in the message that glorified the positive aspects religious faith in the hereafter while rejecting the depressive lamentations of a more apocalyptic interpretation of Biblical faith.

The Young Man is the speaker of the poem, who is attacking the Psalmist for writing sad poetry that transmits the message to readers that life is merely a phantasm and illusory lie. The Young Man turns to Biblical scripture about Adam returning to dust to prove his contention that the soul is immortal and therefore life is anything but meaningless. “Tell me not, in mournful numbers Life is but an empty dream!” are the opening lines of the poem and the set the stage for the thematic thrust of the narrative: the Young Man challenges the very foundational basis of the Psalmist’s body of work. The poetry written by the Psalmist is downbeat, depressing, morbid and dangerous. Dangerous because it instils within the reader the belief that life is meaningless; nothing but a dream devoid of significance or point.

The Psalmist is the only other character in play, but his specific identity is never made clear. Some have suggested that the Psalmist may actually be Longfellow himself; a symbolic representative of himself during his more depressed and morbid periods of existence. Another theory is that the Psalmist is a more universal figure expressing the morbid verse of more contemporary figures like Poe or Lord Byron in which case the lines “leave behind us/Footprints in the stand” becomes the central metaphor of the poem as it urges readers to overcome grief and create meaning for their lives by working hard toward individual accomplishments that will in turn inspire others who follow behind them.

The Young Man’s rage against the Psalmist is not really directed against any specific writer, including the actual author of the Bible’s psalms so much as it is directed against those who have taken the writer of those psalms at his word that life is nothing but a meaningless dream. The real target of the poem are the emotional zombies sleepwalking throughout life who choose to let life happen to them instead of choosing to take the action necessary to become the heroes of their own narrative.

In challenging the assumptions outlined by the Psalmist that life is nothing other than an unfulfilled dream of an entity with a dead soul, Longfellow is pushing hard against those who blindly accept that life is a pointlessly inexorable drive toward the worms of the grave. The poem really does rail against spiritual zombies by strongly suggesting that the key to finding meaning in life is—in an almost Zen-like observation—to respond to the reality of each moment as an individual and not as some passive lemming. By working hard to become the hero of the narrative, one can achieve personal greatness that has the power to inspire. Thus, one leaves behind the zombie horde and achieves immortality that utterly contradicts the philosophical view of the Psalmist that existence is empty and every act inconsequential.

While published in 1838, it is quite likely that composition had begun as early as the fall of 1835 when his wife was in the throes of an illness to which she would eventually succumb in November of that year. Longfellow admitted that he had kept the poem hidden from other eyes well before finally submitting it for publication. The dichotomy between darkness and light relative to having faith in God is one that could very easily be read as a poet overcoming the dark abyss into which one falls in the wake of losing a loved one. Underlying the overarching theme of raging against spiritual zombie-ism is a directive on how to overcome profound grief. Longfellow knows of what he speaks: the poet was stimulated to write this verse by the premature and tragic death of his 22 year old wife, but would not consider it fit for publication for another three years. It is relatively safe to assume that in the interim, he spent considerable time poring of its message as well as revising its structure and language. The key to overcoming such heartrending sorrow that accompanies losing someone much loved—according to the poem—is to enthusiastically embrace life and direct one’s energy toward staking out a heroic claim upon their own little corner of the world. The cure to grief is productivity as expressed in the poem’s concluding lines:

“Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing.

Learn to labor and to wait.”

The concluding lines of the poem serve to exhort the reader to take everything that the speaker has encouraged them to do throughout the poem and live it on daily basis. To make life mean something means to face up to everything that life has to throw at you as if you were a hero facing both good and bad and everything in between. Since you are a hero, pursue good, work hard and wait. The waiting is not just the hardest part…is the ambiguous advice that likely is intended to mean different things to different people. As popular as the poem was when first published, it would later be yet another bit of verse from Longfellow to take on the hard knocks offered by the more experimental and less sentimental mood of the Modernists. Despite that dip in popularity, “A Psalm of Life” remains even today one of the more beloved of Longfellow’s vast and impressive creative output thanks largely to the universality and continued releveance of its message that the point of life is not mere existence or even contemplation, but action. Action precedes essence in the speaker’s philosophy, not existence.