Desiderata by Max Ehrmann

Desiderata’, a word which means “things desired” in Latin,  is a widely popular prose poem that was written in the early 1920s. Ehrmann copyrighted the work in 1927 but a few years later gave out copies without copyright, therefore, forfeiting his US copyright. This is lead to the prose poem’s wide circulation and benefited its popularity. 

It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that this poem reached its widest audience. Spoken word recordings were made in those decades, allowing even more of the world to hear to and benefit from Ehrmann’s tenants of happiness. Due to the universal appeal of the text it was printed on posters in the seventies and distributed in that form. 

The poem has been read and quoted in a variety of high profile public settings since its publication. These include readings by American and Canadian political leaders, actors, authors, and comedians. 

 

Summary of Desiderata

‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann is a simple, yet powerful prose poem that lays out the tenants for living a happy life and keeping peace in one’s soul. 

The forty-six line poem is a long commentary on how one should consider their day to day life. This includes how to keep what’s important in front of mind, balance one’s career, inner peace, and aspirations. While also striving to be a good person in a world that doesn’t always treat you fairly. 

 

Structure of Desiderata

Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann is a prose poem that in its original form was contained within one long paragraph or stanza. In later years, without the consent of the author, it was separated out into stanzas. As a prose poem, this piece has some of the attributes of prose, or structured, purposeful writing that is focused on outcomes and plots, and some of poetry. The latter is seen through the use of stanzas, line breaks, enjambment, and other poetic techniques. 

This piece does not rhyme, nor does it conform to a specific metrical pattern. The lines read more like sentences, albeit with breaks in places that make them poetic, than they do lines of verse. It is easy to approach this piece as a speech, a kind of manifesto on how to live one’s life.

 

Poetic Techniques in Desiderata 

Despite being a prose poem, there are several poets techniques at work in ‘Desiderata’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, sibilance, and alliteration. The first of these, enjambment, is a very prominent technique in this poem. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as that between lines twenty-five and twenty-six. 

Alliteration is another common technique. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “peace” and “possible” in lines two and three as well as “however humble” in line fifteen.

Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. There is a great example in line twenty-nine. 

 

Analysis of Desiderata 

Lines 1-8

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.

In the first eight lines of ‘Desiderata’ the speaker, who is without gender or race, asks that everyone, no matter their background or future “Go placidly amid the noise and haste”. This is one of the best-known lines in this piece and is often used in place of the title. The word “placidly” means peacefully or calmly, this is one of the major themes of the text. In that peace one can find “silence,” something that is beneficial for one’s state of mind. 

The next few lines suggest ways of dealing with one’s own truth and that of others. One of the most poignant pieces of advice is in the seventh and eighth lines. It asks that “you” listen to everyone, even the “dull and ignorant” as they too “have their story”. 

One of the best qualities of this prose poem is its vague, yet strikingly relatable, suggestions. Because the poet does not use names or locations anyone who is reading the text of ‘Desiderata’ can interpret the advice in relation to their own life. 

 

Lines 9-21 

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.

As a complement to the emphasis on silence in the first lines, the next suggest that you “Avoid loud and aggressive persons”. It is better to stay away from things that rouse your spirit painfully or unnecessarily. One of the features of this poem is the way that Ehrmann chose to arrange each line of advice. Generally, the statements take up two lines the first half telling you want to do and the second telling you why it is a good idea. 

For example, lines seven and eight. The first tells the reader to stay interested in their own career because, as the eighth line states, “it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time”. 

In this section of ‘Desiderata’ Ehrmann is emphasizing the themes of self-worth and self-analysis. He suggests that it is necessary to understand one’s relationship to the rest of the world and always take note of the virtues many people exhibit. 

 

Lines 22-33

Be yourself.

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.

In one of the shortest lines of the poem the speaker suggests that you should “Be yourself”. This is followed by details and reasons why not staying true to one’s nature can be detrimental. Age, he continues on, is not something to be fought. One should “Take kindly the counsel of the years”. 

In the eighth line of this stanza a reader can find an example of sibilance. It is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. The words “strength,” “spirit,” “shield,” and “sudden” are all contained in the eighth line.

In this section of ‘Desiderata’ the speaker also promotes understanding the darkness of the world without distressing oneself over it. It is easy to become fearful due to “fatigue and loneliness” he adds. Therefore, it is necessary to be kind to oneself in the face of these eventualities. 

 

Lines 34-46

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 cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

In the last lines of the poem the speaker alludes to the interconnectivity between all living things. “You,” he states directly, are a “child of the universe” as much as the trees and stars are. “You,” he adds,” have a right to be here”. These simple lines are effective. Even more so as they are followed up with the command to “be at peace with God” in whatever form you “conceive Him to be”. This introduces themes of equality, happiness, peace within oneself and with others who are different. 

The final lines of ‘Desiderata’ are a reminder of the beauty of the world and the need to remember that fact when one is confronted with “drudgery, and broken dreams”. The last two lines ask that you “Be cheerful” and “Strive to be happy”. With these simples suggestions the poem ends, leaving the reader to interpret each piece of advice as they see fit. 

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