Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.
It was early morning. The bright sun streamed through the windows of the Craigie house on Cambridge where George Washington has once had his headquarters, and where a young Harvard Professor now lived. He lived, in fact, in the very room that Washington had occupied. And as the stood gazing out of the window at the sloping lawn and the elms, he wondered if Washington might not have stood here once feeling perhaps as he did- unutterably lonely and dejected.
The young man’s wife had died three years ago, but he longed for her still. Time has not softened his grief or eased the torment of his memories. He turned restlessly from the window and wondered how to spend the time before breakfast.
He was a poet too; this young professor; but he had no heart for poetry these days. He had no heart for anything. It seemed, Life had become an empty dream.
But this could not go on, he told himself! He was letting the days slip by, nursing his despondency. Life was not an empty dream! He must be up and doing. Let the dead past bury its dead….
Suddenly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was writing in a surge of inspiration, the lines coming almost too quickly for his racing pen :
A PSALM OF LIFE
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 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!
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 reminds 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.
Longfellow called his poem “A Psalm of Life.” He put it aside at first, unwilling to show it to anyone; for as he later explained, “it was a voice from my inmost heart, at a time when I was rallying form depression.”
But later he allowed it to be published . . . and it went straight to the hearts of millions of people. No poem ever written became so well known so fast. It was taught in schools, recited on the stage, discussed from pulpit and lecture platform. It crossed the ocean and spread like wildfire through England. It was translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Danish – even Sanskrit! In China it was printed on a fan and become immensely popular.
A whole generation of school children grew up under the influence of Longfellow’s “Psalm.” Many prominent men later acknowledged that influence with gratitude. Henry Ford, for example, memorized it as a lad, and later years often said that the six and ninth stanzas came back to him all his life, inspiring him to effort and achievement. Firestone also freely acknowledged his indebtedness to the poem, as did many other famous men. Edward Bok made a special visit to Longfellow to tell him how much the last four lines meant to him. Even Gandhi, on the other side of the world, quoted a favorite line from it just a few days before his death (“.. … things are not what they seem”).
The call to courage and action of a men emerging from a great sorrow. “A Psalm of Life” is one of the best loved and most widely read poems in the world. Its lines are full of faith and hope, its message clear and unmistakable. Its appeal is as vital and timely now as it ever was; in a recent poll to determine the nation’s favorite poem, it easily won first place. For over a hundred years aged to be “up and doing, with a heart for any fate.” No poem more richly deserves its place among the inspirational classics of mankind.