178. A Psalm of Life: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Two Longfellow’s in a row!  My apologies to those reading chronologically….

Last month Wired magazine ran an article, “The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or Cautionary Tale?”  In it, author Ben Austen mentioned a Longfellow poem his father could still recite, memorized in school fifty years prior.

He describes it as “corny”.

He then quotes two entire stanzas from the poem.  To which I ask: Can a poem be corny, yet illuminate one-hundred and seventy five years after it was published?  Can it be corny if a father remembers it decades later and bothers to rattle it off to his son.  If that son remembers it–that rattling–and then uses it in a national magazine article–the cover story!–is it corny?  If it is corny, why use two whole stanzas and not a casual mention?

Why corny at all?

Because it isn’t cool to be positive about life.

There is nothing gained from embracing significance.  Longfellow is not deep, because sometimes life is not particularly deep.  Be happy.  Make a difference.  Simple.

Yet, we have a fear of such simple ideas.  Do good.  Be nice.  Work hard.  Life is as simple as you make it.

As I head into the new school year, it is important for me to remember that students want my belief in them.  Every poem presented is a good one.    Each assignment is worth their time.  The best classroom management is authentic learning.

This is a poem YOU should read aloud.  Put thrust into it.  Life.  Then, pass it to another.  Have them read it aloud.  With thrust.  Then again.  And again.  Pairs.  The class.  Until everyone has participated in reading the whole.  Nothing short of belief will do.

Believe in Longfellow.

I have not posted in awhile because nothing has inspired me.  This did, if only because Austen’s contradictions about what “corny” means moved me.  Don’t let your students miss out.

Life is simple.  They need to leave middle school knowing that.

A Psalm of Life
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

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.


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