When I was a young girl, and a hippy wannabee, I carried a copy of a prose poem that I considered to be my credo. I was told it was from the days of ancient Rome, and that was believeable because it had a Latin name. Through the decades, I always considered it a beautiful piece, and the words always rang true, even if I didn’t. I recently came across it and finally have found out the truth about it.
The author was Max Ehrmann (1872-1945), a spiritual writer and attorney. Of German descent, he was born and grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. He got his B.A. in English from DePauw University, then studied philosophy and law at Harvard. He returned to Terra Haute to practice law, which lasted two years. He then worked in the family meatpacking business and in the manufacture of overalls. When he was 40 years old, he quit work to write. He wrote this famous prose poem, and even copyrighted it in 1927, but never knew fame while he was alive.
The poem was used in a collection of devotional materials by a Reverend in Baltimore, Maryland. At the top of the handout was mention of the founding of the Reverend’s church: “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore, A.D. 1692”. The poem became associated with that date, and was circulated as the work of an anonymous writer from 1692.
A copy of the poem was found by the death bed of Adlai Stevenson in 1965. The publicity that ensued made both the poem and the poem’s connection to Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore famous.
Les Crane made a recording of the poem, in late 1971 and early 1972, and it was a major hit in the U.S., reaching the No. 8 position on Billboard charts. He even received a Grammy for “best spoken word recording.” The producers of the record had assumed , as did the public, that since the poem was very old it was in the public domain. By this time his family stepped in and claimed Ehrmann’s authorship, and eventually were able to collect royalties, albeit after some legal struggles.
Just this past August, Terre Haute honored its native son with a sculpture of Ehrmann sitting on a bench. The name of his prose poem? Desiderata, Latin for “things desired”:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.