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Featured Poem: A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

Written by Rachael Norris, 28th September 2020

As September draws to a close, this Featured Poem comes from National Hub Leader at The Reader, Esther Harsh, who introduces us to A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

This poem came to mind as I thought about September’s daily reading theme: beginnings and endings. 2020 has been a heavy time for everyone, and although it is not over, the ending of another season gives us an opportunity to pause and look around.

In reading ‘A Psalm of Life’,  I first notice lines like ‘For the soul is dead that slumbers’ and ‘Time is fleeting’ which give me a feeling as if there might be parts of us that feel lifeless or maybe running out of time. It is interesting to think about ourselves in different parts, and that there might be parts of us that continue on day to day and then perhaps there are other parts that have a harder time functioning. The poem could be speaking to this latter, anxious part of us.

There looks to be a call to action in the last half of the poem. That line to ‘Act,— act in the living Present!’ stands out to me because it has ‘living’ next to ‘Present’. It’s as if the poem might be saying that the present is the only part of time that has a heartbeat. This feels meaningful to me as sometimes the present can feel like the most overwhelming place to be. It might be easier to look to the past (how things were) or the future (what we wish might be) for a more comfortable peace.

The opportunity to ‘act in the living Present’ feels hopeful as we step into the autumn season, though it may be difficult. It is powerful to imagine that perhaps our bravery to ‘act, that each tomorrow/ Find us farther than today’ might be the means of creating an encouraging ‘footprint’ that others may see, and even ‘take heart again’.

A Psalm of Life 

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.

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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