Who Originally Wrote Desiderata?

by Amy

Desiderata,” a prose poem known for its timeless wisdom and serene advice, was originally written by Max Ehrmann. Often misattributed due to its universal appeal and the simplicity of its messages, it’s crucial to acknowledge the true origin of this beloved piece to appreciate its historical and literary context fully. So, Who Originally Wrote Desiderata?

Author’s Background

Max Ehrmann, born on September 26, 1872, in Terre Haute, Indiana, was an American writer, attorney, and philosopher. Ehrmann was the son of German immigrants and grew up in a household that valued education and intellectual pursuit. He attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he excelled academically and was elected class poet. He later studied law and philosophy at Harvard University, further expanding his intellectual horizons.

Ehrmann’s professional career was diverse; he practiced law and worked in his family’s business before eventually dedicating himself to writing full-time. His literary works span various genres, including poetry, essays, and plays. Despite his broad range of writings, it is “Desiderata” that has endured as his most famous piece, bringing him posthumous recognition that far exceeded his modest renown during his lifetime. Ehrmann passed away on September 9, 1945, leaving behind a legacy that would grow in the years following his death.

Historical Context of the Poem

“Desiderata” was penned in the early 1920s, a period marked by significant social, economic, and cultural change in the United States and the world. The aftermath of World War I saw societies grappling with the devastation of the war and the subsequent desire for peace and normalcy. This era, known as the Roaring Twenties, was characterized by economic prosperity for some, but also by social upheaval and cultural transformations.

The 1920s saw the rise of modernist thinking, where traditional values were questioned, and new perspectives on life and humanity emerged. In this context, “Desiderata” was written as a reflection on how to live a meaningful and peaceful life amid the chaos and rapid changes of the time. Ehrmann’s philosophical education and introspective nature allowed him to distill wisdom that transcended his era, offering timeless advice on how to navigate life’s complexities.

Publication History

“Desiderata” was originally written in 1927, but it did not gain widespread recognition until decades later. Ehrmann had printed a few copies privately and distributed them to friends and acquaintances, but it was not until after his death that the poem started to reach a broader audience.

In the 1950s, the poem was included in a compilation of Ehrmann’s works, which helped increase its visibility. However, a notable boost in its popularity came in the 1960s. During this time, Adlai Stevenson, a prominent American politician and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly kept a copy of “Desiderata” on his bedside table. After Stevenson’s death in 1965, the poem was found among his papers, leading to a resurgence in interest and the misconception that he had authored it.

The poem’s wide dissemination in the 1960s and 1970s was further aided by its adoption by the counterculture movement, which resonated with its messages of peace and individuality. It was also frequently reproduced in posters, cards, and other media, contributing to its enduring popularity.

Content and Themes of the Poem

“Desiderata,” Latin for “things desired,” is a prose poem that offers a series of philosophical reflections and advice on how to lead a balanced and fulfilling life. The poem’s structure is straightforward, written in plain, accessible language that contributes to its universal appeal.

The themes of “Desiderata” include:

Peace and Tranquility: The poem begins with the famous line, “Go placidly amid the noise and haste,” setting the tone for the emphasis on maintaining peace and calmness amidst life’s chaos.

Individuality and Authenticity: It encourages readers to be themselves, avoid comparisons, and respect their own journey in life.

Compassion and Understanding: The poem advocates for kindness and understanding towards others, recognizing that everyone has their struggles and challenges.

Balance and Moderation: It advises moderation in one’s actions and emotions, suggesting a balanced approach to life’s ups and downs.

Acceptance and Resilience: “Desiderata” speaks to the importance of accepting the inevitable difficulties of life while maintaining hope and resilience.

Spiritual Reflection: The poem subtly references a higher power and the spiritual dimension of human existence, encouraging a humble and grateful attitude.

Impact and Legacy

“Desiderata” achieved significant popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming a touchstone for the counterculture and self-help movements of the time. Its appeal lay in its soothing and uplifting messages, which resonated with individuals seeking guidance in a turbulent world.

The poem has been translated into numerous languages and continues to be shared widely across various media. Its lines have been quoted in speeches, inscribed on plaques, and included in countless anthologies, making it a mainstay of inspirational literature.

The impact of “Desiderata” is also seen in its use in therapeutic and spiritual contexts. Many find solace in its words during times of personal crisis or existential reflection. The poem’s ability to speak to universal human experiences has ensured its place in the cultural lexicon, where it remains a source of comfort and wisdom.

Misattributions and Clarifications

One of the most common misconceptions about “Desiderata” is its attribution to an anonymous author or its association with historical figures like Adlai Stevenson. Another widespread myth is that it was found in St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore in 1692. This erroneous belief likely stems from a misinterpretation or mislabeling in a publication or poster.

The truth, however, is clear: Max Ehrmann wrote “Desiderata” in 1927. Understanding the poem’s true origin helps to appreciate its historical and cultural significance and honors Ehrmann’s contribution to literature.

In conclusion, Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” continues to resonate with readers worldwide. Its themes of peace, individuality, and resilience offer timeless wisdom that remains relevant across generations. Recognizing the true authorship and historical context of the poem enhances our appreciation of its enduring message and the legacy of its creator.

FAQs about Desiderata

1. What is the true origin of “Desiderata”?

“Desiderata” is a prose poem written by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Despite its widespread popularity and frequent misattributions, Ehrmann is the true author. The poem’s origin can be traced back to his personal reflections and philosophical outlook on life. It gained significant attention only after his death in 1945, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when it resonated with the counterculture movement and was widely reproduced.

2. Why did the author write “Desiderata”?

Max Ehrmann wrote “Desiderata” as a reflection of his philosophical and spiritual beliefs. He intended to offer guidance on how to live a meaningful, balanced, and peaceful life. The poem’s creation was influenced by his introspective nature and his desire to share wisdom that could help others navigate the complexities and challenges of life. Ehrmann’s background in law and philosophy, as well as his personal experiences, shaped the insights he conveyed through the poem.

3. Why did Max Ehrmann create “Desiderata”?

Max Ehrmann created “Desiderata” to encapsulate his thoughts on achieving inner peace and leading a fulfilling life amidst the chaos of the modern world. The 1920s, when the poem was written, was a time of significant social and cultural change, and Ehrmann sought to provide a timeless message that emphasized tranquility, compassion, and resilience. His philosophical education and personal quest for meaning were driving forces behind the poem’s creation.

4. What is the true meaning of “Desiderata”?

The true meaning of “Desiderata” lies in its simple yet profound advice on how to live a balanced and harmonious life. The poem emphasizes the importance of:

Maintaining Peace: Encouraging readers to go placidly amid noise and haste, seeking tranquility.

Embracing Individuality: Advising against comparisons and encouraging authenticity.

Practicing Compassion: Urging kindness and understanding towards others.

Finding Balance: Promoting moderation in actions and emotions.
Accepting Challenges: Recognizing and accepting life’s difficulties while maintaining hope.

Spiritual Reflection: Encouraging a humble and grateful attitude, subtly referencing a higher power.

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