A Psalm of Life
Composition and publication history
Longfellow wrote the poem shortly after completing lectures on German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and was heavily inspired by him. He was also inspired to write it by a heartfelt conversation he had with friend and fellow professor at Harvard University Cornelius Conway Felton; the two had spent an evening "talking of matters, which lie near one's soul:–and how to bear one's self doughtily in Life's battle: and make the best of things". The next day, he wrote "A Psalm of Life". Longfellow was further inspired by the death of his first wife, Mary Storer Potter, and attempted to convince himself to have "a heart for any fate".
The poem was first published in the October 1838 issue of The Knickerbocker, though it was attributed only to "L." Longfellow was promised five dollars for its publication, though he never received payment. "A Psalm of Life" and other early poems by Longfellow, including "The Village Blacksmith" and "The Wreck of the Hesperus", were collected and published as Voices of the Night in 1839. This volume sold for 75 cents. Longfellow scholar Robert L. Gale referred to "A Psalm of Life" as "the most popular poem ever written in English".
In the summer of 1838, Longfellow wrote "The Light of Stars", a poem which he called "A Second Psalm of Life". His 1839 poem inspired by the death of his wife, "Footsteps of Angels", was similarly referred to as "Voices of the Night: A Third Psalm of Life".
Analysis and response
The poem is meant to inspire its readers to live actively, and neither to lament the past nor to take the future for granted.
"A Psalm of Life" became a popular and oft-quoted poem, such that Longfellow biographer Charles Calhoun noted it had risen beyond being a poem and into a cultural artifact. Among its many quoted lines are "footprints on the sands of time". In 1850, Longfellow recorded in his journal of his delight upon hearing it quoted by a minister in a sermon, though he was disappointed when no member of the congregation could identify the source. The poem was widely translated into a variety of languages, including Sanskrit. Joseph Massel translated the poem, as well as others from Longfellow's later collection Tales of a Wayside Inn, into Hebrew.
Longfellow wrote "A Psalm of Life" at the beginning of a period in which he showed an interest in the Judaic, particularly strong in the 1840s and 1850s. More specifically, Longfellow looked at the American versions or American responses to Jewish stories. Most notable in this strain is the poet's "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport", inspired by the Touro Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island.
Calhoun also notes that "A Psalm of Life" has become one of the most frequently memorized and most ridiculed of English poems, with an ending reflecting "Victorian cheeriness at its worst". Edwin Arlington Robinson, an admirer of Longfellow's, likely was referring to this poem in his "Ballade by the Fire" with his line, "Be up, my soul".
- Gale, Robert L. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003: 202. ISBN 978-0-313-32350-8
- Thompson, Lawrance. Young Longfellow (1807–1843). New York: The Macmillan Company,1938: 267.
- Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004: 137. ISBN 0-8070-7026-2.
- Cody, Sherwin. Four American Poets: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes; a Book for Young Americans. New York: Werner School Book Company, 1899: 106–107. Accessed August 12, 2008
- Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004: 137–139. ISBN 0-8070-7026-2.
- Irmscher, Christoph. Longfellow Redux. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006: 54. ISBN 978-0-252-07586-5
- Thompson, Lawrance. Young Longfellow (1807–1843). New York: The Macmillan Company,1938: 270.
- Gale, Robert L. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003: 85. ISBN 978-0-313-32350-8
- Einboden, Jeffrey. Nineteenth-Century US Literature in Middle Eastern Languages. Edinburgh University Press, 2013: 27. ISBN 978-0-7486-4564-0
- Einboden, Jeffrey. Nineteenth-Century US Literature in Middle Eastern Languages. Edinburgh University Press, 2013: 20–21. ISBN 978-0-7486-4564-0
- Gale, Robert L. An Edwin Arlington Robinson Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, 2006: 24. ISBN 9780786422371
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