Lingering Effects of Poetry

“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.”

Some words trigger memories and some words trigger memorized poetry. Today’s Ragtag daily prompt — the word “slumber” — triggered memories of “A Psalm of Life” a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he was only nineteen. My mom tossed lines from that poem at me even when I was very small, but the lines she usually tossed were “Life is real! Life is earnest!” The poem has been a constant echo throughout all these years.

I got to teach that poem several times and I always enjoyed it, but the best experience was in the People’s Republic of China. Somehow my teaching and Longfellow’s poem hit my students just right.

I introduced the poem by saying that, to Longfellow, our lives were something to create, like a piece of marble that we would carve into something beautiful. I remember reading a lot of very beautiful essays written into the little copy books they used that they were going to “carve their stone.”

It’s funny how the poem still resonates for me. It was sometime during the late spring 2020, with COVID scaring the crap out of everyone with half a brain, that I realized I’d better start oil painting and RIGHT NOW because, “Art is long and time is fleeting…” and I had/have a ton of unused supplies.

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. 

“Crap! I have more paint than I might be able to use in the entire rest of my life and if COVID??? HOLY crap! Martha, you don’t have TIME to be afraid of that big canvas!! Get your ass in there!!”

I really did think that, and I got my ass in there.

Essentially, I guess, the poem is a paean to stoicism and “making the best of it,” which is, you know, pretty much all any of us can do .

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.


P.S. I appreciate the encouragement on the ink drawings. It’s not my “thing,” but it’s an interesting challenge. One good thing about it is that, unlike painting, I’m not constantly cleaning brushes so the winter cracks on my thumb from cold, dry air and brush washing might finally heal.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/02/27/rdp-saturday-slumber/

21 thoughts on “Lingering Effects of Poetry

  1. Let the past… thank ya for the update as ya yearn for clarity which allows for perdition to come to the fore! If not for ya and other people that are on WordPress I don’t know how ya can be useful and taken to the temple for honest discussion about life. I thank ya Martha Kennedy because ya gotta me okay 👍🏾 keep writing please

  2. Wonderful that that poem has woven itself through your life! Not everyone is fortunate enough to have poetry streaming in front and behind. Paint if you must, draw if you will, sing if you can and write your story large! As for the winter cracked thumb – Sparky has that issue but uses O’Keefe’s hand cream in the jar (not the lotion in the tube) and it keeps them from forming and helps with healing if he forgets and gets a crack.

  3. I don’t often connect to a poem, but I did to this one. Act in the present… Art is long…
    Wow – it is fitting. Thank you for sharing this. I may have had a similar moment (or two) when I saw a notice about a juried photography exhibit. Instead of shrugging it off for “next time” or (as usual) struggling with all the reasons why my work wasn’t ready or good enough, I guess I kicked myself into gear. Because what the hell else do I need to do Right Now? Time is fleeting. I got my act together, figured out the entry requirements and submitted 3 images. And lo and behold, I got an email yesterday that 2 were accepted. Shock and excitement ensued.
    (also – that photo could have been me – we had the same hair and glasses 😀)

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