Max Ehrmann’s inspirational poem –
The common myth is that the Desiderata poem was found in a Baltimore church in 1692 and is centuries old, of unknown origin. Desiderata was in fact written around 1920 (although some say as early as 1906), and certainly copyrighted in 1927, by lawyer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) based in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Desiderata myth began after Reverend Frederick Kates reproduced the Desiderata poem in a collection of inspirational works for his congregation in 1959 on church notepaper, headed: ‘The Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692’ (the year the church was founded). Copies of the Desiderata page were circulated among friends, and the myth grew, accelerated particularly when a copy of the erroneously attributed Desiderata was found at the bedside of deceased Democratic politician Aidlai Stevenson in 1965.
Whatever the history of Desiderata, the Ehrmann’s prose is inspirational, and offers a simple positive credo for life.
“Desiderata” – by Max Ehrmann:
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 to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations 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. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.
Take kindly to 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 in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann c.1920
“Desiderata:” myth and trivia (allegedly..)
Max Ehrmann was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on September 16, 1872. His parents were German immigrants. Ehrmann graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle in 1894, after which he studied law and philosophy at Harvard University.
Ehrmann returned to Terre Haute to practice law, following which (early 1900’s) he began writing, apparently obsessively. Max Ehrmann was known as the ‘Poet Laureate’ of Terre Haute.
Ehrmann wrote many poems, although none became well known until after his death. Aside from Desiderata his most famous poem is A Prayer, written in 1906.
Max Ehrmann originally copyrighted Desiderata in 1927 as ‘Go Placidly Amid The Noise And Haste’. The copyright number was 962402, dated 3rd January.
Ehrmann included Desiderata in a Christmas message to his friends in 1933, and significantly never added any copyright notice, a factor which featured strongly in legal considerations in the 1970’s about Desiderata copyright (more below).
US Army psychiatrist Merill Moore wrote in 1942 to Ehrmann that he used the Desiderata poem in his therapy work, and also wrote to Ehrmann in 1944 suggesting that the poem should be bottled and sold as ‘Dr Ehrmann’s Magic Soul Medicine’. Communications between Moore and Ehrmann featured strongly in legal considerations in the 1970’s about Desidarata copyright (more below).
Max married Bertha three months before his death in 1945. Bertha Scott King Ehrmann was from New York; she graduated from Smith College, wrote, taught, and published a book called The Worth of a Girl. Three months after Max Ehrmann’s death, Bertha published four of his books.
Max Ehrmann’s widow Bertha published the Desiderata poem with some other of his work in 1948, in a collection titled The Poems Of Max Ehrmann. She re-renewed the Desiderata copyright in 1948 and 1954.
Bertha Ehrmann died in 1962, upon which the copyright ownership passed to her nephew Richmond Wight. Wight later sold the copyright for an undisclosed amount to Crescendo Publishing Company in 1975.
Seemingly in 1959 (some say 1957) Reverend Frederick Kates produced around just 200 copies of his inspirational works collection featuring Desiderata, which sparked the confusion and myth that endures today. By the late 1970’s Old St Paul’s Church was receiving 40 enquiries a week as to the origins of the Desiderata poem.
A copy of the Desiderata poem (a version linked to 1692 and The Old St Paul’s Church) was found on Democratic politician Adlai Stevenson’s bedside table after his death in 1965 – supposedly Stevenson was intending to use what he believed to be the ancient poem in his Christmas cards, and this much publicised discovery did much to increase the fame and myth of Desidarata.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry kept a copy of Desiderata in his office.
The Desiderata verse was a big selling Athena poster during the late 1900’s.
Desiderata is Latin and means ‘things that are yearned for’, which in the context of the poem more closely means ‘essential things’.
Inspired by an Athena or similar poster, singer Les Crane used the Desiderata words in his 1971 hit pop record, for which he received a Grammy award for the ‘best spoken word recording’. Supposedly Les Crane saw the Desiderata verse on a poster and believed the words to be in the public domain, but then (so the story goes) had to share his royalties with the then Desiderata copyright owners.
Amazingly there is some doubt today as to whether Ehrmann’s final line of Desiderata began ‘Be careful…’, or ‘Be cheerful..’ Most modern interpretations, including the one here, use the latter.
Confusion has surrounded Desiderata copyright and usage and whether or not the poem is in the public domain. A key judgement was made following the Desiderata poem’s publication in the August 1971 issue of Success Unlimited magazine, after which Desiderata became the source of a copyright court battle (Bell v. Combined Registry Co., 536 F.2d 164 – 7th Cir., 1976) between Robert L Bell (owner) and Combined Registry Company (publisher). The court decided on 14 May 1976 in favour of Combined Registry Company. Bell has however apparently succeeded since then with other claims, so caution is advisable if intending to publish or exploit the Desidarata work for profit. Look on the web for more precise up-to-date details about copyright and ownership.
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