A Psalm of Life (transcript)

Rev. Dr. Michael E. Haynes: I was born in Roxbury, at the Crossing. My parents came as immigrants—African Caribbean immigrants—to Roxbury. They purchased a little cottage on a little street that was dominated by Irish and Jewish families, and then the crash came, the Great Depression. I needed inspiration. I needed challenge. I needed a philosophy to live by. And in junior high school, an Irish teacher kept quoting the seventh stanza of a person she called “the New England Poet.” Later on, at Boston English High School, my English teacher had us learn all the stanzas of the New England Poet’s “Psalm of Life.”

In 1989, by that time a minister, I took critically ill with a life-threatening affliction. Before surgery, the doctors warned that they didn’t know how the surgery was going to turn out. And I turned to this bit of poetry, again, for inspiration, for challenge, for philosophy, and even a theological contemplation. In fact, in my preparation for the inevitable, I scribbled on some paper some funeral notations— which you’re supposed to do in situations like that—even an inscription for a gravestone.

But I got well, and sometime after the illness, a rumor spread through Roxbury that Michael Haynes was indeed dead. The rumor said that there’s a gravestone in Forest Hills Cemetery. And I discovered that the cemetery had made a mistake, and they had installed a gravestone, which was supposed to have been put in a warehouse. And I had inscribed the second stanza of my New England Poet’s “Psalm of Life” on that gravestone, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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 destin’d 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 glorious Present!
Heart within, and God o’er head!

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 shipwreck’d 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.