Saturday, December 21, 2013

Longfellow: A Psalm of Life

The human mind is a strange and wonderful thing. I'm no doctor or scientist, but apparently everything  that has ever been downloaded into it is still in there somewhere, even if we can't always consciously access it. A crossword puzzle clue often evokes an immediate memory of a word or name that I could not have recalled with 3 hours of consistently racking the brain. Just the other day the word "Hidy" (the greeting, not the woman's name) drew up something from Cheech & Chong I hadn't thought of in 40 years (and I'd hit the delete button on that, if I knew how).

My mother is 98 years old. She may be a little forgetful at times, but she is still very sharp. On Tuesday she quoted to me the whole of Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" (or which you may think of as "Footprints on the Sands of Time"). She didn't stumble through it, but quoted it with expression, as she had learned it. She learned it over 80 years ago for a county school competition and still remembers it. Several weeks ago my daughter recorded her quoting and posted it on YouTube. [Two corrections: 1. Mother just learned the poem in school, but not for the county school competition. That was something else. 2. My daughter posted it on Facebook, not YouTube. But now it is on YouTube: Mawmaw recites Longfellow]

Here's Longfellow's Psalm of Life:

A Psalm of Life
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.

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in 1838

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