Monday 23 December 2019

'Life is real! Life is earnest!'

Strolling through the churchyard (as I often do), I noticed a quotation on a gravestone that was definitely not biblical but was, to me, extremely familiar –

'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.'

Yes, it's Longfellow again – The Psalm of Life – and the reason it was so familiar to me was that it was one of the bits of strenuously moralistic verse that my father liked to intone while shaving in the morning, in between the much more exciting narrative poems. I don't think he had the whole of this one by heart, but he certainly had the first quatrain:

'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.'

And, from a little later in Longfellow's overlong effusion:

'Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.'

(That last line was rewritten by some later poetical wag as 'Arseprints in the sands of time'.)

Another of my father's favourites in this moralising line was

'Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone.
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own.'

The Queen herself quoted these lines in her Christmas message at the end of her annus horribilis of 1992, but didn't mention the author – not Longfellow but Adam Lindsay Gordon.
  Gordon was an interesting, rather dashing figure – an Englishman who, to escape the consequences of a wild and reckless youth, took passage to Australia, where he became a police officer before resigning to take up horse-breaking. A remarkable horseman and amateur jockey, he also had a brief political career. According to Wikipedia, 'his semiclassical speeches were colourful and entertaining, but largely irrelevant.' After this, he devoted himself more diligently to poetry – Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes being his chief claim to (posthumous) fame – while suffering various setbacks, including a head injury from a riding accident and chronic financial difficulties. In 1870, at the age of 36, he walked into the bush and shot himself.  He is now regarded as one of the fathers of Australian literature, even though much of his verse has been written off as quite indefensibly bad.


  1. Guy Davenport quotes an epigram by E.E. Cummings mocking Hemingway, and ending

    "(kow dow r 2 bul retoinis/wus de woids of lil Oinis"

    There can hardly be another poet with the parodies so crowding out the real verses. In my childhood I must have read a bit of "Hiawatha"; but I know maybe two authentic lines, a dozen or more from Lewis Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing", and bits and piece of others. ("This is the meter Columbian:/The murmuring dactyls and trochees, ...". And of course there are plenty of variants on "The Landlord's Tale", otherwise The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.