Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, October 26, 2013


On January 3, 1927 the American author, Max Ehrmann copyrighted the highly popular poem “Desiderata”. Several myths over the years have developed surrounding the origin of this poem.

The poem Desiderata, which is Latin for “desired things”, was largely unknown during the author’s lifetime. It was first published by Reverend Frederick Kates, rector of Saint Paul 's Church in Baltimore , Maryland in 1956 as part of a compilation of devotional materials for his congregation. Because the compilation included the church's foundation date of 1692, the myth arose that the poem dated back to that year. In addition, the compilation failed to credit Ehrmann, which helped to generate the other myth that the author was unknown. Another factor contributing to the error was that the copyright of the poem and its renewal in 1954 by Ehrmann’s wife was listed as, "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, et. Card”, which might have made research for copyright protection difficult.

In August 1971, Desiderata was published in Success Unlimited magazine. Ehrmann’s family filed a lawsuit in 1976 claiming copyright infringement however; they lost because permission had been given in 1940 without invoking copyright. As a result, the court ruled that the poem was public domain. Also in 1971, Les Crane recorded Desiderata on his LP by the same name. The myth of the age of the poem had led the record company to assume that the poem was too old to be in copyright. Unlike Success Limited, the record company eventually paid royalties to Ehrmann’s family.

Desiderata has a history of being popular with high profile individuals.

When Adlai Stevenson (US Democratic Party candidate for President in 1958) died in 1965, it was found near his bedside. Later in 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau quoted the Desiderata that "the universe is unfolding as it should" during his speech upon losing reelection.

The actor Leonard Nimoy recited the poem, calling it "Spock Thoughts", on his 1968 LP “Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy” as well as on the 1995 re-release of his LP “Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock's Music From Outer Space”. Oddly, he changed the line in the poem “Be Cheerful” to “Be Careful”. In the 1991 movie “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (Nimoy co-wrote the story) Spock stated that he had faith that “the universe is unfolding as it should”.

This poem continues to inspire today. In a 2012 episode of Oprah Winfrey's Master Class, actor Morgan Freeman expressed how deeply the poem shaped his life and ended it with the last lines of the poem. Across the web, one can download posters and wallpapers of the poem and acquire books with it.

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 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 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 critical 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 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. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
© Max Ehrmann 1927

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