This poem dramatizes the conflict between the truth of life lived in the moment and the neglect of the soul when a person focuses on things beyond his control: namely the past and the future. There are many themes expressed by the poet within this work: freedom, happiness, perseverance, truth, futility, spirituality and success. From the title one might say that the theme is simply to seize the day: Carpe Diem (Harmon, 2009, 87). The poem’s form is that of the lyric (324)and the poet encourages the reader to use their imagination. The word choices and placement within its’ stanza evoke both a melody and emotion. There are nine stanzas that make up the composition and each contain the qualities of the quatrain [consist of four lines in which lines two and four must rhyme while having the same number of syllables (452)]. Psalm of Life also carries the traits of the dramatic monologue in that the narrator of the work is the poet himself (177).
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In stanza one, line one the poet assigns the description of “mournful” to the idea of numbers. This word was chosen to identify the audience: those who apparently go through life as though it is a chore. The word mournful frames the feeling as though something was lost and captures the grief generated by that loss. “Life is but an empty dream!” states why there are so many sorrowful within the audience: if there is no aim higher than what one can gather on the earth then life itself has no purpose. The poet reveals his motivation in lines three through four of the first stanza: “For the soul is dead that slumbers/And things are not what they seem”. Living life in a rut or for material reasons is the killer of the soul. The soul found unawares, which is what is implied by the word use of “slumbers”, is most vulnerable to eternal death. Line four tells the audience that they must look beyond the surface of the world as well as beyond themselves. “Life is real! Life is earnest!” conveys an earnestness and a bit of desperation. An emphatic proclamation made in a way of a Southern Baptist preacher pleading with those on the path to destruction to turn to the life of the soul. “And the grave is not its goal” underlines the idea that life is something to be actively engaged in and not merely a journey to death. “Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,” is referencing Genesis 3:19 and seems to throw this plea for life into a light that may speak to the religious up-bringing of his audience. The poet makes a very important distinction in the following line, “Was not spoken of the soul”. The creation of man is entirely unique from the rest of life on the earth because “… the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul(Genesis 3:19)”. These two lines bring into the poet’s supplication the backing of scripture.
Stanza four brings forward the thought of futility: “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”. It is as though the poet wants to remind his audience that every moment, every heartbeat is bringing them closer to the inevitable end one’s life-time. This further underlines the idea of seizing the day. In using the word fleeting the poet attempts to get across that time will just continue on without regard for the individual- no matter how brave and firm one’s heart might be. The poet is again underlining that life today is all one really has when faced with the flow of time. Stanza five, line 18 introduces a word that is unfamiliar in today’s way of life: bivouac. This word defined in Merriam-Webster as “a temporary or casual shelter or lodging” and by itself holds the idea of the entire poem which is that this life is temporary. This stanza evokes urgency through the use of the exclamation point. The poet is telling his audience to be the hero of their own battles rather than a pawn in the battle of another with the words “Be not like the dumb, driven cattle!/ Be a hero in the strife!”. Stanza six addresses the two possible positions of the audience and bring to them some very specific supplications: for those who are living for tomorrow the poet says, “Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!” and for those who would lament the past, “Let the dead Past bury its dead!”. The poet does not leave the audience wondering what their response should be but plainly states, “Act, – act in the living present! Heart within, and God o’erhead!”
People can make what they will of their own lives and can follow the example of the great men that came before them, “Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime,”. There is no secret that separates those who are great from those that pass through life without leaving an impression. It seems as though the poet is saying that those who are considered great took advantage of the opportunities of their present. It is those people who “…departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sand of time” who provide encouragement not only to their generation, but for those in the generations to come “Footprints, that perhaps another,/Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,/A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,/Seeing shall take heart again”.
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The final stanza brings a soft point to the compelling argument of the previous eight. It is as though the poet it taking the hand of the audience: to pull them gently from the bed of their complacency. The hand held out shows that walking along the road of today does not mean a journey travelled alone, “Let us then be up and doing,/With a heart for any fate;/Still achieving, still pursuing,/ Learn to labor and wait.” The poet takes the hand of the reader now as he did during his own time and seems to say to each individual: Let us move forward together.
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