"A Psalm of Life" was first published in The Knickerbocker, attributed only to "L." It was then included in Voices of the Night, published in 1838 not long after Longfellow took on the position of Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard University. This collection was the first original work published after his return from his years studying and translating in Europe. Longfellow included three of his translated passages from Dante's Purgatorio. Critic Leslie Eckel writes of this collection, "Longfellow imagines his volume of poetry not as a monolingual, monocultural effort but rather as a collection that speaks in different national 'tongues' and invokes a 'Pentecost' that spreads the spirit of poetry to all corners of the globe."
"A Psalm of Life" was published not long after Longfellow's first wife Mary died from a miscarriage; critics see this collection as one of the ways he dealt with his grief. This poem in particular also exemplifies the poet's didacticism.
It is written in an ABAB pattern and has a trochaic meter.
Contemporary critics were strongly laudatory. In his 1840 Christian Examiner review, Oliver W.B. Peabody wrote, "[the poem] is equally admirable for its simplicity, manly fervor, dignity, and truth. The young man can ask no nobler hymn of battle, with which to march, like the soldier of antiquity, into the momentous conflict which awaits him, when the calm enjoyments of early life are over, and his years of labor, anxiety, suffering, perhaps of victory, begin."
The volume went through six editions by 1842; it was translated into many languages including Sanskrit. Longfellow was glad to see the poem become popular and be frequently anthologized, noting in his journal, "This is a great pleasure, to see the working of it upon other minds."
Critics today are less fond of the poem, noting that its popularity does not save it from being saccharine and didactic.