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Sample Close Reading: Poetry

For my poetry analysis, I've chosen Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “A Psalm of Life.” Longfellow was one of the most beloved poets in nineteenth-century America.

Step 1: Choose your passage.

I chose this poem because it was very well-known in the nineteenth century. It's short enough to read carefully in a few paragraphs. It seems simple on the surface, but it's full of literary elements.

Step 2: Read and summarize.

This poem is about overcoming sorrow to keep moving forward, to be bold and to do something that matters with your life. The speaker encourages readers to embrace opportunity, to work hard, and to be patient.

Step 3: Re-read and annotate.

  • Highlight, circle, or underline word choices that stand out.

“empty dream,” “goal,” “destined end,” “Funeral marches to the grave,” “field of battle,” “dumb, driven cattle,” “Footprints on the sands of time,” “forlorn and shipwrecked brother,” “to labor and to wait”

  • Identify the mood of the passage. How does it make you feel?

I find this poem really uplifting. Though there may be sorrow in the past and hard work in the present, the future can be bright if we strive to make it so. The use of the exclamation points and all the phrases that connote hopefulness (“take heart again,” “hero in the strife,” “stout and brave,” “Still achieving”) give the poem an energetic and optimistic feeling.

  • Write any questions that come to mind about the author's choices in the margins.

Why mix multiple metaphors and similes? (military, agricultural, maritime)

  • Identify any literary elements that you notice in the passage.

The poem has an abab cdcd etc. rhyme scheme. It is a series of quatrains (stanzas of four lines). It is written in meter-- there are eight syllables per line, in patterns of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. (The term for this meter is trochaic tetrameter.) The poem alludes repeatedly to the bible. The title, “A Psalm of Life,” is a reference to the biblical psalms. The lines “Dust thou art, to dust returnest” and “Let the dead Past bury its dead” are also biblical allusions. Life is metaphorically compared to a battle (“In the world's broad field of battle,/ In the bivouac of Life”). Our actions are also metaphorically compared to footprints we leave in the sand for others to see (“And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time”). Navigating life's challenges is also metaphorically compared to sailing (“Sailing o'er life's solemn main,/ A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,/ Seeing, shall take heart again”). Longfellow also uses a simile when he tells readers to “Be not like dumb, driven cattle!” and when he compares our hearts to “muffled drums.” There are several examples of alliteration: “For the soul is dead that slumbers,” “And the grave is not its goal,” “Was not spoken of the soul,” “In the world's broad field of battle,” “Be not like dumb, driven cattle,” “Sailing o'er life's solemn main,” “Seeing, shall take heart again,” “Learn to labor and to wait.”

  • Identify the author's tone.

This poem seems sincere, sentimental, and hopeful.

  • Note any patterns that you see, in punctuation, word choice, sentence structure, etc.

Exclamation points appear repeatedly, giving the poem a vigorous, excited feel. The rhyme scheme and meter are also patterns.

Step 4: Prioritize and unpack.

Based on my analysis above, I have lots of good options to write about. I'm really interested by the way the poem sounds, thanks to the rhyme and meter-- it's uplifting, it follows a set pattern, and it feels like a march, in its regularity and forcefulness. Knowing the metrical pattern and rhyme scheme, I find myself eagerly anticipating the next line, the completion of the pattern, which works well in a poem about looking forward. The march-like feel fits well with the martial metaphor at the middle of the poem. Just as Longfellow tells his readers to keep marching on, working and waiting, and his own poem mirrors this enthusiastic, vigorous forward movement. The most obvious military reference is “In the world's broad field of battle,/ In the bivouac of Life” but actually, the metaphor starts a stanza earlier, with the reference to “muffled drums” “beating” “Funeral marches to the grave.” This stanza helps to tie the meter and rhyme to the military metaphor-- the poem itself marches to a beat.

Step 5: Putting it all together.

In “A Psalm of Life,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow encourages his readers to look on the bright side of life, to work hard, and to be patient, trusting that their labor will be meaningful and will help others. To share this message, Longfellow centers his poem on a military metaphor, counseling readers to “[B]e a hero in the strife” of “the world's broad field of battle,” “the bivouac of life.” This metaphor fits Longfellow's subject very well. Like a battle, life is difficult, dangerous, and uncertain. Just like winning a war, living well requires planning, diligence, tenacity, courage, and hopefulness. We associate the military with bravery and honor, two things the poem makes clear are also necessary for living well. By tapping into the reader's associations with war, Longfellow rouses his readers to action, willing us to be heroic, not just for our own sake, but also for the well-being of others. The poem's rhyme scheme and meter complement this military metaphor. Each line leads with a stressed syllable, starting strong, and the repetition of the meter makes the poem feel like a march. Just like an army marching on, brave and hopeful, the poem marches on. The pattern of the rhyme and meter makes the reader anticipate what will come next, an appropriate strategy in a poem about moving forward. Longfellow makes the reference to a march explicit, when the poem states that “our hearts, though stout and brave,/ Still like muffled drums, are beating/ Funeral marches to the grave.” The poem serves as a contrast to these funeral marches: the poem is loud, not muffled, thanks to the many exclamation points and the forceful meter, and it is a poem of life, not death. Through the use of rhyme and meter, Longfellow matches his form to his content, mirroring the military metaphor at the heart of the poem in the poem's own triumphant beat.