By Jenny Koch
In high school, my wise English teacher required all students to memorize and perform a poem. To this day, I hear echoes of this assignment – and I am eternally grateful for such an awesome Catholic school teacher. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this poem three years after his wife died. Having experienced death and suffering, his tone is surprisingly optimistic and heroic.
If you have experienced death or suffering, you may relate to Longfellow’s words. The poem reminds me to take heart again and continue in the path of continual conversion encouraged by our faith and so many that have left their own footprints before us.
When I read ‘things are not what they seem,’ I’m reminded to reflect often on the visible signs of the invisible – the beauty that points to God and conversations that change hearts. I imagine the presence of loved ones after the ‘Holy, Holy’ at Mass, and I have learned to imagine the sanctuary full. Truly, things are not what they seem. At this special moment at Mass, I am also reminded that the ‘dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.’
We are not meant for suffering; we are meant for life. Our bodies don’t last forever, and suffering is inevitable. So, the words of Longfellow may comfort you as well as you leave your footprints in the sand. Longfellow reminds us to labor and to wait. There is still much work to do, and this poem reminds us that we can make our lives sublime if we keep our focus on ‘God o’erhead.’ Keeping the end in mind, a sort of living backwards sometimes helps your perspective as you learn to labor and to wait. For Longfellow, it brings hope and optimism. I hope the same for you.
A Psalm of Life
By 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.