»  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life"


A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882


•  Background

exhortation — language intended to incite and encourage
hortatory — giving or characterized by exhortation
                  (Webster's Third)

Hortatory verse had its heyday in the 19th century. Today, in the deepening twilight of Western civilization, there is not much demand for it. Some of us can still be stirred by it, though.

In this page and the next two I've posted the three best (in my opinion) hortatory poems in the English language.

This first one is the earliest of the three. It was written in 1837 when Longfellow was teaching Modern Languages at Harvard. It ranks high up in the list of most-parodied poems: Oliver Wendell Holmes penned a particularly good specimen.

I have written up Longellow at length here


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

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 are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

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 sand 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.