Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet that lived from 1807-1882. “Longfellow’s poems often present images of master craftsmen dedicated to excellence in their tradition-governed work. As a kind of byproduct of their labor, these figures possess social and aesthetic authority and age-old human wisdom.” (Gartner, 62). Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” holds true to this grasp of wisdom that his metaphorical teachers have to pass along. In opposition to Ecclesiastes 1:1-16, which states “everything is meaningless”, the poem opens up the reader to the preciousness of life.
One opens the book of Ecclesiastes and finds a prominent “Momento Mori” theme blooming. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) The passage continues explaining the vanity of our everyday life. It mentions the fact that throughout each generation, the same tiresome activities preside. Then the passage continues, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8) Then the passage even describes how the Teacher finds human wisdom to be yet another source of man’s foolishness. “Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind,” (Ecclesiastes 1:16) is how the passage culminates. It leaves one with a feeling of despair and utter discomfort.
Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, had the most wisdom and wealth of any man in history. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. His kingdom was ruled in peace, and his allies were expansive. However, when the end of his life came to a foothold, he found it all to be worthless. His pursuit of happiness twisted into bitterness. His pursuits of wealth left him with nothing left to desire. His pursuits of pleasure gave him a cynical and jaded view-point. The man, who had it all, saw the world as bleak. So how is the reader, who has little to nothing compared to what Solomon had, supposed to feel? It must certainly be hopeless for the common man if Solomon was miserable as he was.
Yet, Longfellow replied to this passage with his own insight. Man’s life and everything in it is valuable. The poem’s narrator is a young man speaking to the psalmist which is believed to be Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes. He begins his argument with, “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.” This beginning gives the reader a clear understanding about what the argument is against. Longfellow’s young narrator does not want to hear “humans are going to die, so what’s the point in trying?” The speaker in the poem wants the reader to divert himself from that sort of attitude and listen to how life really is.
According to Matthew Gartner, at this time in Longfellow’s life, his wife had just died. She was very dear to him. The loss of her and the unrequited love he felt for a new woman in his life, Fanny Appleton, gave him a new focus on how quickly our blessings could pass away. These events inspired him to not take anything for granted again. (73) They gave him reason to dedicate his new works to the muse that was his wife. She must have been a very important part of his spiritual growth and path. “Life is real! Life is earnest! / And the grave is not its goal / From dust thou art, to dust returnest / Was not spoken of the soul.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took this new engraving on his heart and brought it to the public of America. Just as his wife was his arm outreached to grab him, he wanted people to know that they too could be “a hero in the strife.” His concern turned towards his fellow man and the path he wanted to set before the nation. He became the mentor and the companion of his audience.
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.
Gardner writes of an inconsistency in narrator form to show that Longfellow is balancing his status as teacher and friend to the reader (77). His main goal is to share his wisdom and persuade them that he himself must remember these things as well. He brings forth the notion that they are united into a family that serves as a helping system when one falls. One must hold himself upright and be open to that which happens around him, not what may have been or could happen. This is the goal that keeps this life from being meaningless.
Today, the reader is called to the same mission. When one reads Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” now, it strikes the same chord that awakens what was long dead. The audience today is just as jaded and needing a meaning to keep living. In a world that suicide is all too common, where people squabble about petty political arguments, and that the poverty stricken aren’t helped but hindered, people need to know that there’s more to life than that cold, lackluster attitude that they adorn themselves with like worn-out fur coats. Jill Anderson tells us about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s call for an active effort in his poems. (1). Longfellow’s words tell everyone that they should make a way to “be a hero in the strife.”
Gartner, Matthew. “Becoming Longfellow: Work, Manhood and Poetry.”
American Literature 72 (2000): 59-86.
The Holy Bible: New International Version. Ecclesiastes 1:2-16
Anderson, Jill. “’Be up and doing’: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the poetic labor.”
Journal of American Studies 37 (2003): 1