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"a Psalm of Life" Analysis and Summary

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Song Analysis IOC


A ‘Psalm of Life’ is a very famous poem by the American poet Henry Wadsforth Longfellow. He was a 19th century poet who had a recurring theme of Romanticism throughout his works, including this one. The word ‘psalm’, as seen in the title, means a sacred or religious song. This is essentially a song of life in which the poet glorifies life and its possibilities.

Although he was Christian, he argues against specific Biblical verses and references to convince the reader to lead a full life. He also speaks of not wasting life, achieving goals by not wasting time and always keeping faith in life. It’s given subtitle ‘What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist’, can prove to give us a greater understanding into the context of the poem as here a young man is responding to the Biblical teachings that this human life is not important.

The poem is written in an optimistic and didactic tone, meaning a directly instructional voice. The poem is written in 9 stanzas of 4 lines each. The poet keeps an ABAB rhyme scheme which is consistent throughout the poem to keep the poem engaging for the reader to help them better understand the poem. The poem is ‘numbered’, as the first of each couplet has 8 syllables and the second has 7 syllables.

I have divided the extract into nine sections, in relation to the stanzas, which I will address and analyse separately.

The first stanza begins the poem by illustrating the perception of life according to the audience and how the speaker initially reacts to such an insight:    

The phrase “mournful numbers” suggests that the audience is not one but many voices. ‘Numbers’ can also allude to the Bible. The speaker is asking that these voices cease their complaining and whining that “‘Life is but an empty dream’!” The statement suggests that life is something of a worthless, imagined fantasy.  However, the speaker argues: “For the soul is dead that slumbers / And things are not what they seem.” Here, he extends on his life-as-dream metaphor that if that comparison holds true, then all our souls are already deceased as one who is ‘sleeping’ and ‘dreaming’ all the time does not get a chance to truly experience life. The speaker suggests that life is misunderstood if it is interpreted as a dream, because a dream is something bodiless and subconscious, and life is not meant to be either of those things. This is also the first reference to “the soul.” The reference of the soul is seen throughout the poem and is the primary component of the speaker’s interpretation of life and death.

The second stanza tries to convey the true value of life, how it is meant to be perceived and directly argues for its ethereal nature.

In the first line, the speaker uses the similar sentences with different adjectives to try ingrain a positive attitude towards life into the minds of the audience. In the second line, where ‘grave’ indicates death, the phrase declares that death is not the purpose of life, that we are not born just to die, and that there is actually meaning and depth to life. The semicolon at the end of this line can be interpreted as the poet trying to let this thought convey into the minds of the audience who have an entirely different perception of life. The third verse is a Biblical verse, referring to the fact that God made the human body out of dust and it to the dust that we will return when we die. In the fourth line, he replies to previous verse by saying that although we will eventually die and our bodies will cease to exist, he believes that in the existence of the soul after death.

The third stanza addresses the ideal way to live life.

The third stanza of A Psalm of Life is about the ideal way of living. The poet suggests that neither enjoyment, nor sorrow should be our ultimate aim or way of life. He means to say that in an ideal life there should be both enjoyment and sorrow in a balanced way. But that is not crucial. The most important thing is to work, and work diligently so that we can always be a better-learned, better-skilled and better-mannered human being with every passing day. The poet in The Psalm of Life doesn’t want us to waste even a single day.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker addresses the reality of death and our responsibilities in this life.

In the first line, the speaker is underlining the fact that there is not enough time allotted in a lifetime to experience everything. Additionally, the capitalization of the terms, ‘Art’ and ‘Time’ suggests the importance that these concepts have over humanity. In the second line, the speaker illustrates the heart as the centre of emotion and personifies it as having traits of strength and bravery. This is meant to highlight the fact that while humanity may be strong and valiant in most aspects of life, no amount of power can stop the inevitability of death. The “beating” of the heart (“beating” here has a double meaning, referring to both the regular rhythm of the heart as well as the standard method of striking a funeral drum) is just a physical reminder of that truth.



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