Summary of A Psalm of Life by H.W. Longfellow (Stanzas 1-4)

Summary of A Psalm of Life by H.W. Longfellow (Stanzas 1-4)


Summary of A Psalm of Life

Stanza 1

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.

The poet says that he does not want to pay any heed to those verses of the Bible which stress upon the futility of life because it comes to an end eventually. He discards any pessimistic way of thinking which regards life as a dream that is empty. In dreams we are offered a lot of great things but dreams are empty because the moment we wake up; all that we had been awarded vanishes. Poet says that it is indeed true that human live resemble such empty dreams because of life’s transience – we get to enjoy all that life offers us only to give it all up when it is time to leave Earth. However, “things are not what they seem”. In spite of its temporality, life is much more substantial than dreams since a lot can be achieved during one lifetime, as opposed to in dreams. Anyone who chooses to think otherwise and gives up on life because it ends eventually has a very weak soul. He disavows such weakness of spirit and the pessimism born out of it.

Stanza 2

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

The poet says that in spite of being temporal life is very real. Just because it comes to an end, it should not be taken lightly. Life is serious business and because it is short, it calls out to us with an urgency to achieve all that we can and develop ourselves – “Life is real, life is Earnest”. To help us view life in a serious and urgent light, the poet urges us to see it as independent of the impending Death. The aim of being alive is not to die one day. As humans who have been given the gift of life, we must not think of it as a slow wait for Death. Instead, we must utilize all the opportunities that come our way to better ourselves. The poet adds that the biblical wisdom that we all come from nothing and vanish into nothingness is indeed true. However, this wisdom is not applicable for the soul which is immortal and lives on till eternity. Here, the idea from the first stanza, that life is not an empty dream is being re-iterated. Life is not akin to a dream because of the soul. Our soul adds meaning and permanence to our life. Death cannot touch it.

Stanza 3

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way:
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us rather than to-day.

In the third stanza the poet talks to us about the best way to make the most of our lives. He says that whiling away our time in merriment or by grieving over losses or pain is not the right away to be living our numbered days. He says that as the most evolved species, humans are destined for much more than just mindless pleasure or sorrow. The poet then invokes the theme of carpe diem or the proverbial ‘seize the day’ and asks to act. He wants us to make ourselves useful and fill our days with activity to the brim such that every coming day sees us more advanced in life than what we are at present. He wants us to keep striving to develop ourselves and our souls. That way, when the time to bid farewell does come we would have reached the pinnacle of self-completion.

Stanza 4

Art is long, time is fleeting,
And our hearts though stout and brave,
Still like muffled drums are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the fourth stanza the poet explains the urgent need to make every day count. He says that Art, which is the only nourishment for the soul is endless and our Time on Earth is too limited. Hence he asks us not to lose any time and cultivate our soul through Art because even though our heart might seem strong when we are young, it is actually like a drum, the beats of which keep dropping as it slips towards the inevitable End. What the poet means to say is that our days on Earth are numbered and every day takes us closer to the end. Our strong heart-beats die a little every day, like ‘muffled drums’ since they are on a “funeral march to the grave”. Hence we must soak in as much of the infinite repertoire of Art as possible before death takes us in our stride.

Summary of A Psalm of Life by H.W. Longfellow (Stanzas 5-9)