Manvotional: A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 21, 2010 · 24 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

A Psalm of Life

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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.

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
   Finds 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.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cosy Amar November 21, 2010 at 5:35 am

Wow! Read that back in school in 1950s…
Thanks… :)

2 DM November 21, 2010 at 8:15 am

Thanks for sharing one of the most inspirational poems ever! Oh that men and women would live like that!

3 Carlo d. November 21, 2010 at 9:41 am

This really means a lot to me. I needed to hear this.

4 ZZ November 21, 2010 at 9:53 am

That’s great advice if you happen to be a phenomenally talented poet or some other person with extraordinary abilities. For the rest of us, maximum striving will yield marginally better lives, but will not make us “great men” or enable us to “leave footprints in the sands of time”.

For most of us, a life in the cubicle followed by retirement, with perhaps some volunteer effort with kids who will soon forget our names.

5 Mark Nelson November 21, 2010 at 10:42 am

With an outlook like that, ZZ, you’re right: you’ll get nowhere, and you’ll do it really, really fast. Set your eyes on a mediocre goal and you’ll be — surprise! — mediocre.

My mother used to read that poem out loud to me as a child. It is as poignant and powerful now as it was then.

6 Daniel Crandall November 21, 2010 at 10:46 am

ZZ seems to have shot the horse before he started riding and is now complaining because he isn’t getting anywhere.

7 Scott November 21, 2010 at 11:14 am

Thank you for sending this; it is one of my favorite poems.

I am pleased to see the Art of Manliness back on track after its unfortunate embrace of Lee and slavery.

8 Jeff Jones November 21, 2010 at 11:30 am

Scott-

I’ve looked through the archives and I haven’t seen anything here on the site where AoM has embraced slavery. Quit making shit up.

9 Mark Nelson November 21, 2010 at 11:44 am

The only direct mention of Lee I found through a search was this:
http://artofmanliness.com/2008/10/27/manly-advice-from-robert-e-lee-plus-a-book-giveaway/
There is more to Lee than slavery, despite what simplistic history books will tell us. Just like there is more to that era of the South — and this is coming from a Yankee.

10 Matt H. November 21, 2010 at 1:50 pm

You just recorded my all time favorite poem. I love the poems of Longfellow, but this is a cut above even the lengthy Paul Revere’s Ride. This and Dickinson’s poem “We Never Know” are two among the greatest to come out of American literature. Thanks.

11 M.J. Montgomery November 21, 2010 at 5:59 pm

This poem is definitely an inspiration. I agree with Matt H., this is American literature at its best. I have read through this poem 7 times since I saw it here and I absolutely love it. A perfect message for any man.

12 Steve November 21, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Translation:

Work hard, love life, live life, and in your own way make an impact some where some how.

13 Lucas November 22, 2010 at 9:20 am

Very meaningful poem, especially if you are a member of KAO.

14 G. de La Hoya November 22, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Thank you for the Longfellow Psalm. It reminds me of subjects my favorite psalmist,King David, wrote about.
Peace, G.

15 Andrew November 22, 2010 at 11:39 pm

I read and loved this poem for the first time back in high school. It’s just as pertinent today, if not more so, as I can see it through the filter of the wisdom the last ten years have brought. No doubt it will be more meaningful ten more years down the road.

I highly recommend the poem Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson (about the original Ulysses, not him of S. Grant fame). It’s more literary (read: more archaic and perhaps a bit more syntactically challenging), but well worth it. It’s also more poignant, since it’s about a man nearing the end of his life. It is beautiful though, and in the words of the final stanza, a constant reminder to be “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

16 Ken Montville November 23, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Loved the poem and wanted to share it (and by extension, the site) with a friend via the “share e-mail” link but it doesn’t work properly. Bummer. Maybe it’s my browser (Chrome). Who knows?

17 Allyssa November 24, 2010 at 12:29 am

A classic carpe diem poem full of optimism, hope and inspiration. Thanks for sharing this! I love the literary works of Henry Wadsworth!

18 Ryan November 24, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Tell us more about the image “footprints” you included in this post. Who is the artist and it seems like there’s a meaningful story behind it.

19 Brett McKay November 24, 2010 at 7:20 pm

@Ryan-

The picture comes from this book from 1891:

http://books.google.com/books?id=LnECAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=psalm+of+life&hl=en&ei=uavtTJTED4_Wnge1zvC_Cg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

It seems like back in the day they used to publish little books that consisted of a poem and a bunch of illustrations to go with it. Quite a nice concept I think.

20 Josh Tollefson December 2, 2010 at 3:13 pm

@ZZ

Sorry to hear that you feel that way man, we all have ups and down. Find something to anchor yourself to what’s happening now, something that gives you purpose. God, Family, exercise, work, whatever it takes. Once you’ve got your anchor, take a deep breath, stand up straight, & start pushing forward again.

The only thing that’s standing in your way is your own inhibitions. I don’t know you from Adam, but, I know you can do it.

21 nab September 22, 2012 at 2:40 am

This poem has been a part of me since I was made to learn it at 11yrs . It still is. And I believe the inspiration it gave me and still does, has made me much the better man and father.

22 Melva Roberts February 24, 2013 at 2:47 pm

my father born1898 recited 2′nd verse to 5 of us in 1940′s & I now Pass it on to grandchildren & great with motto, love God, love life,strive to achieve,serve loyally,&follow golden rule

23 Patrick August 28, 2013 at 1:32 am

A teacher read that in 1944 when I was 10 years old in a schoolhouse in the north woods country of Minnesota. It changed my life. I now am 79 and recite the poem often.

24 Peter Jones December 8, 2013 at 9:32 am

Mr. Mandela was certainly a man to leave ‘footprints in the sands of time’.

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