Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For Ash Wednesday: A Psalm of Life

Amidst the ashes and smudgings and hymns in minor key of Ash Wednesday, I always find myself quoting from Longfellow"s "A Psalm of Life:"  Dust thou art to dust returneth was not spoken of the soul.

It's a poem I learned in fifth grade, and it's stuck with me. My teacher, Mrs. Peters. was right fond of having us memorize poems, and Longfellow was a favorite of hers. It says a lot (though nothing surprising) that I can remember whole chunks of Longfellow and the entire Gettysburg Address even now, yet have to stop and think about my street address in New York.

Reading over "A Psalm of Life," every phrase is familiar. Did we really have to memorize the whole thing? Must've done, because line after line rings a bell. Life is real! Life is earnest! . . . Art is long, and Time is fleeting . . . Footprints on the sands of time . . . Learn to labor and to wait. Wow. Let's see, and that was - I'll admit it - about 48 years ago?

And another thing I'll admit. I like Longfellow. So there. (I also appreciate Ginsberg's "Howl," so back off.) The last two verses of Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" always break my heart a little. It rhymes. It's trite. But it moves me. Go figure.

On this Ash Wednesday, "A Psalm of Life" gives me hope and encouragement to make it through the 40 days of Lent. So, yeah, all right, my body will someday turn to dust. But not my soul. I'll hang on to that good news throughout Lent.

"Dust thou art to dust returneth was not spoken of the soul."

1 comment:

Liz said...

What a great thought.

I'm like you: I can remember every verse of the hymns we sang in school but ask me what I did yesterday and I'll look at you blankly!