Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Longfellow And A Psalm Of Life


“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing leave behind us
ootprints on the sands of time”-----H.W.Longfellow

These memorable lines and oft-quoted verse were written by the famous American poet H.W.Longfellow [1807-1882] nearly 150 years ago and form a part of his well-known poem ‘A Psalm of Life’. Born in 1807 in Portland, Maine, USA in an orthodox New England family, Longfellow entered Bowdoin College at the age of 15, tavelled extensively at the age of 20 and by the time he was 22, started writing and tried to bring the Romantic tradition in English literature in America. When he was 24 he married Mary Potter, daughter of a Portland judge. Twelve years after his marriage his wife delivered a baby but unfortunately she died in childbirth. This was a great setback to Longfellow in his flourishing literary career. Ten years later, he took a second wife by name Elizabeth Appleton who was extremely charming. Both Longfellow and Elizabeth led a happy life for a few years.

One afternoon Elizabeth was sealing some envelopes using burning wax. Unfortunately the burning wax fell on her flimsy dress which immediately caught fire. Although Longfellow extinguished the flame, Elizabeth was so badly burned that she died the next morning. The ghastly sight of the burnt body of his wife, so beautiful and bewitching when it had life, upset Longfellow so much that he could not completely recover from this shock. At that time he was working as Professor in the Harvard University.

Every crucial experience in life can be regarded as either a setback or the beginning of a new kind of development. In the case of Longfellow the loving memory of his beloved haunted him for quite sometime. Though life had become an empty dream for him, he knew that he could not remain in that dejected, unbearable state any more. It was exactly at that moment of agony, he heard an inner voice from his innermost heart advising him to take courage and face life boldly with a belief in God. When he was thus rallying from depression, his inspired poem “A Psalm of Life” came forth spontaneously. This is how the poem goes:

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 reach tomorrow
Find us farther than today

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!

There is no Future, however pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its head!
Act, act in the living present!
Heart within, and God overhead!

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 over 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 labour and to wait.
H.W. Longfellow

His unmistakably heartfelt lines of hope and faith went straight to the hearts of millions of people and students all through the world, who read it and memorized it in every major language including Sanskrit.

He died on 24th May 1882 and was mourned all over America and England.

B.M.N. Murthy
ARTCLE NO. 474--Footprints on the Sands of Time
Created: Friday, November 21, 2008 8:15 PM


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