The word ‘desiderata’ – the title of the poem – is a Latin word which means ‘things desired’. The poem, as such, focuses on the things we should aspire for to lead to a meaningful life – inner peace, broad-mindedness, responsiveness, high ideals, positive attitude , faith in God and his creations. It is an inspiring, didactic poem
About the Poet
Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) is known chiefly for his inspirational poem ‘Desiderata’. Most of his works are spiritual in nature. A group of friends and the congenial environment in which he lived were the main motivating forces behind his works. He was an attorney by profession and worked in his brother’s manufacturing concern, but devoted some hours to writing every night. Then he left the job to take up writing as a whole-time career.
He was awarded a degree in English by Delauw University in Greencastle, Indiana (USA). He then studied law and philosophy at Harvard University. He was the editor of a magazine entitled The Rainbow, circa 1896. He was honoured with the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Delauw University. He was elected to the ‘Delta Tau Delta Distinguished Service Chapter’, the fraternity’s highest alumni revealed.
Ehrmann passed away in 1945 and was buried in Highland Lawn Cemetry in Terre Haute, Indiana. In 2010, Ehrmann’s life-size bronze statue made by sculptor Bill Wolfe was installed in Indiana. He is depicted sitting on a downtown bench, pen in hand, with a notebook in his lap. The poem ‘Desiderata’ is engraved on a plaque next to his statue, and the lines from the poem are embedded in the walkway. The sculpture is in the collection of Art Species, Inc. – Washbash Valley Outdoor Sculpture Collection. Art Spaces also originates an annual Max Ehrmann Poetry Competition.
About the Poem
‘Desiderata’ is basically a didactic poem. Its main purpose is to guide the readers as to how to lead a peaceful, meaningful life. It is a prose-poem in nature. Its language is denotative, rather than figurative.
It was written in 1927. It was not popular in Ehrmann’s time. It brought him more fame posthumously than it did when he was alive. It has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. It has been translated in a number of languages across the world.
The title of the poem suggests that its focus is on the things we should desire in our life. The poet asks us to have a positive attitude and learn to live in a world in which bad people of all sorts live. It is possible to kind, generous and liberal in life. The only thing is that we should have inner peace and faith in goodness and humanity. The poem opens with the most relevant message in our times.
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.
It exhorts us to remain calm in the world that is full of noise and troubles. It underlines the need to develop the mindset of peace. Among many gems it spread are (i) Be on good terms with all persons as far as possible,
(ii) Don’t compare yourself with others
(iii) Take pride in your career
(iv) Keep your identity
(v) Be positive
(vi) Be at peace with God, and last but not the least
(vii) Be cheerful and let bad things in the world not affect us.
About the poem, Ehrmann says, “it counsels those virtues I felt myself most in need of.”
Inner Silence : There is a lot of noise in the outer world. There are many kinds of interruptions in our way. Lots of people are impatient and in a hurry. They have no peace in their life. All of us should aim at being peaceful with ourselves. This is possible only if we learn to be on good terms with all sorts of people. We should, of course, speak frankly what we want to say, but we should listen to others patiently, even to those who are dull and ignorant. We should keep in mind that they too have their story.
Avoid Being Vain or Bitter : It is important to keep away from those who are rude and aggressive because such persons are neither at peace with themselves nor do they let others remain in peace. We need to be ourselves. This is possible if we stop comparing ourselves with others. When we compare ourselves with others, we either become vain or proud or low-spirited. Whatever we achieve or whatever we plan, we should enjoy and relish it. We should remember our uniqueness in the world. Only then can we lead a peaceful and happy life.
Being Cautious : We should take interest in our profession, however low-grade it is. We should be cautious in conducting our business affairs for there are many persons who can play tricks on us. But we should not be overcautious and he suspicious of everyone. There are virtuous persons. There are many who try to achieve high ideals in life. Life is full of heroic persons.
Be Yourself : It is very important to be what we arr. We should try to present ourselves as we are. We should not pretend to be loving towards someone, if we are not. But at the same time we should not be cynical towards love. In this world of dried-up feelings and disillusionment, love is as fresh as the grass.
Calm Acceptance : We should grow old and accept old age. We should not try to force ourselves to be young. It is better to give up ‘things’ of our youth in old age without any fuss. We should strengthen our inner resources of spiritual strength as a bulwark against any unexpected misfortune. We should not let fears assail us, for most of the fears are the product of fatigue and loneliness. We should be disciplined but we should not torture ourselves with self-control. It is better to be gentle with ourselves. Anything which is forced or excessive is bad.
Faith in God and in His Creation : Everything in the universe has its own place. We are as much as part of the universe as trees and stars. Whether you understand it or not, everything in this universe in happening as it should. So we should be at peace with God and with universe.
World, a Beautiful Place : There is much hypocrisy in the world. There is a lot of boredom and hard, useless toil. People suffer because their dreams are broken. Despite so much negative things the world in which we live is a beautiful place. We should remain happy and make all efforts to be so.
Stanza by Stanza explanation
‘Go placidly ……….. their story.’
Lead your life peacefully amidst all the noise and haste. Remember that there is peace when you are silent. As far as possible, without losing your self-respect, be on good terms with all sorts of people. Speak whatever you want to say calmly and clearly, and listen to others also, even to those who are boring and ignorant as they too have their viewpoints.
‘Avoid loud ………. your plans.’
Avoid loud-mouthed and violent persons as they are irritants to our souls. If you compare yourselves with others, you may become proud or embittered, as there are always persons who are superior or inferior to us. So enjoy what you have achieved and what you plan to do.
‘keep interested ……… heroism.’
Don’t lose your interest in whatever profession you follow, however low it is, as that is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Remain cautious in doing your business as the world is full of cheaters. But don’t let caution make you blind to the fact that there are virtues, that a lot of people pursue high ideals and life if not devoid of heroic acts.
‘Be yourself …………. as the grass.’
Be what you are, and do not pretend to have affection for anyone if you don’t have. But don’t be cynical about love because love is eternal and fresh as grass in the wake of much dryness and disillusionment in the world.
‘Take kindly ………….. with yourself.’
Grow old gracefully and leave all the pretentions associated with youth. Cultivate strong spiritual powers to cope with misfortunes that may strike you any time, but do not let yourself be overpowered with false apprehensions. Remember, fears are the product of fatigue or loneliness. Don’t be too severe with yourself beyond a point of being desciplined.
‘You are ……….. as it should.’
You are as much a part of this universe as trees and stars. You have a right to be here as they are. Whatever is happening is happening according to a divine plan, whether you know it or not.
‘Therefore, be ………… in your soul.’
Be at peace with God in whatever form your see Him. Be at peace with yourself in the world of doubts and confusions, irrespective of our strengths and aspirations.
‘With all ………… be happy.’
There is a lot of hypocrisy, hard boring labour and disenchantment in the world, and yet this world is beautiful. So be cheerful and try to be happy.
The main idea that ‘Desiderata’ conveys is that we should cultivate a positive outlook on life and on the world in which we live. There are , undoubtedly, lots of irritants. There is much noise, violence and aggression in the world. The world is also full of loud-mouthed, aggressive persons. Then there are tricksters who are out to rob us of our hard-earned money. There is all-round hypocrisy, pretension and disenchantment. How should we then lead our life in this world?
The poet give us right counsel, and that is to accept the world as it is, with both its joys and woes:
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
We should focus on ourselves in order to improve ourselves. We should not sit in judgement over others and the world around us. We should not even judge ourselves. We should find an inner peace. This is possible if we are true to ourselves and try to make ourselves happy in the midst of all confusions and troubles. We should have love-based focus both in our interactions with others and in our inner peace.
The poet gives practical suggestions to achieve inner peace and poise by saying that we should try to be friendly with others, be truthful and honest and be receptive even to the dull and the ignorant. He gives another suggestion, and that is, to be self-satisfied.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater or lesser persons
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans,
The poet is not blind to the wicked side of the world in which we live. He knows that there are many wicked persons in the world. There are those who are cynical about love. There are those who are disenchanted with everything in the world. There are ‘loud and aggressive’ persons. We need to accept them as a part of reality. We should not give in to them. We should focus on ourselves and try to improve ourselves. The poet’s message is:
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
if the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
Being a prose-poem, ‘Desiderata’ does not use figurative language and traditional literary devices. Even then the following literary devices are found to be there in the poem.
- It is a perennial as the grass (Stanza 4)
- If you compare yourself with others (‘r’ sound)
- Especially do not feign affection (‘f’ sound)
Popularity : ‘Desiderata’ enjoys a vast popularity with people of all ages, especially the adults. It is one of the most anthologies poems in the world. It has been translated in many languages in the world. It first came into limelight in the 1960s and 1970s when someone made a poster of it. In 2010, its creator’s (Ehrmann’s) life-size bronze statue made by sculptor Bill Wolfe was installed in Indiana. The poem ‘Desiderata’ is engraved on a plaque next to his statue, and the lines from the poem are embedded in the walkway.
Controversial Background : Many people still believe that the poem ‘Desiderata’ was found in a Baltimore church in 1692 and is centuries old. It was, in fact, written around 1920 by lawyer Max Ehrmann. Whatever be its history, it is very popular among persons of all ages. It is considered to be one of the most inspiring poems of the world and offers “a simple positive credo for life”.
A Prose-Poem : A modern critic is sure to challenge the categorization of ‘Desiderata’ as a poem. It seems to be a mere compendium of maxims put together in poetic form. There is nothing poetic about it. No idea is allowed to grow. No significant figure of speech is used. Despite its didactic value, it is shorn of all the qualities we seek in a poem.
Inspirational Poem : There is no doubt that the poem imparts us some valuable advice. It highlights the virtues of inner peace and poise, honesty, individuality and other such high ideals in life. There is no doubt that our world is a noisy and troublesome place to live in. There is a lot of pretence, trickery and disillusionment here. People are out to trample one another in a rat race of endless ambitious. In the wake of so much negativity we need spiritual strength to survived. We need to remember:
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken drams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to he happy.
Form and Structure : ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann is a prose poem. It is divided in to 8 stanzas of uneven length. It uses no rhyme. The rhythm is irregular.