Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footsteps on the sands of time.
Like many corny poems, "A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), is easy to remember and, in places, very moving, especially to the young (after all, he gave it the epigraph: 'What the Heart of the Young Man said to the Psalmist'). As a boy, I loved and memorized it, though even then I'd laugh at the concluding stanza, beginning "Let us then be up and doing," as I was already a rather languid youth, more inclined to follow Longfellow's contemporary, Walt Whitman, and his dictum to "loaf and invite my soul."
And it wasn't only boys who were drawn to this poem. Hillary Clinton has said that two lines from "A Psalm of Life" — But to act, that each tomorrow / Find us farther than today — had "sustained her legislative career." She must have memorized it, too, because she hasn't much time left these days for reading poetry, though both she and President Obama read at last week's White House poetry "jam" (poems read to jazz — the copycats, we did this last month at the Jimmy Keel Library in Tampa!).
"A Psalm of Life" popped into my head from a dark direction, when Time magazine put Osama bin Laden's Xed-out photo on its cover: a major contemporary footprint. But bin Laden can hardly be what Longfellow had in mind when he wrote "great men." Easier to imagine "A Psalm of Death": Lives of evil men remind us / we can make our lives a crime / And, departing, leave behind us / Bloodstains on the sands of time...
Although the two, when old, had certain physical likenesses — heavily bearded and soulful-looking — they could hardly have been more different at heart. Bin Laden was religious, all right (so "Psalm" works): a fanatical Wahhabi puritan, proud to have inflicted pain and death on people whose beliefs differed from his. On the other hand, Longfellow was religious in a broad-minded Unitarian way, looking for truth and the good life in general, uninterested in dogma; and, in person, averse to offending anyone. On his deathbed, for example, the old Victorian warmly welcomed none other than Oscar Wilde, already a scandal in England and about to be imprisoned.
Today, Longfellow would have been offended by the Republicans' mean-minded reaction to bin Laden's overdue death — our only clear-cut triumph in the "war against terror." Most of them, including our smooth-talking Senator Marco Rubio, didn't mention Obama by name at all — lying by omission, as if Obama had nothing to do with it — and those who did, like Governor Rick Scott, credited President Bush's grotesque policies, especially torture. The simple truth is that Bush turned away from bin Laden to Iraq, empowering al-Qaida and sending us off on a long road to financial and moral debt; the rest is self-serving spin.
It's premature to call Barack Obama a "great man," but just looking at his truth-allergic rivals, he seems to qualify by comparison. He's smarter, stronger, calmer and more generous than Newt, Mitt, Michele, Sarah, Ron Paul, Rick, Tim, Dick, Mitch et al. Combined.
Longfellow's poem may be a bit dippy, but corniness can be forgiven when wrapped around truth:
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.
—both quotes from Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life"
Carol Mickett will interview Peter and Jeanne for the Dalí Museum's "Our Town" series, Thursday May 26, at 6:30 p.m. Free, but RSVP required: thedali.org/tickets.