Desiderata : The poem
A prose poem replete with wisdom and positivity, Desiderata encapsulates some timeless truths which we can revisit to better understand and appreciate this life of ours. The beauty of this poem lies in its honesty and its ability to help one acknowledge and rise above certain uncomfortable facts about human existence. The poem admits that suffering is a part of life and life itself can be a less than perfect affair. However, rather than turning cynical about it, the poem calls for a balanced approach to life and encourages one to celebrate goodness whenever one encounters it by telling us that despite its imperfections, it is still a beautiful world. Because it is a prose poem, Desiderata doesn’t have a rhyme pattern. But what it does have is a treasure of wisdom and insight. Truly, it has no rhyme but much reason.
Dealing with the themes of love, compassion, human dignity, honesty, humility and a positive attitude towards life, Desiderata provides some markers for balanced living which has made it into a much anthologized poem. Desiderata Summary and Analysis section of Litbug’s LitGuides explores the beauty of this poem in greater depth. The poem is provided in a verse form so as to facilitate the understand of the piece.
Desiderata : About the poet
Max Ehrmann was born on 26th September, 1872 in Terre Haute, Indiana to a German immigrant family. As a young boy, his mother encouraged him to read extensively. Ehrmann studied English at De Pauw University and later went to Harvard to study law and philosophy. Following his graduation, Ermann returned to his hometown to serve as a deputy state’s attorney.
Ehrmann was very interested in spiritualism and most of his works reflect his affinity for the same. By the time he reached forty, he decided to dedicate full time to literature and his businessmen brothers financially supported him in his endeavours.
Desiderata (Loosely translated from Latin as “things desired ) was written by Ehrmann chiefly as a message for himself. The poem was not quite well received when it was published. However, it had become hugely popular around sixties, partly owing to its extensive adoption in the pop-culture. Desiderata continues to be one of the most popular poems to this day.
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Desiderata : SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
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 ignorant;
they too have their story.
Written in about 1927, Desiderata wasn’t quite popular in Ermann’s time but gained much popularity nearly after four decades. One of the most beautiful aspects of this poem is its balance of contrasting elements. Desiderata is a carefully composed poem where different aspects of life are considered while providing some sound advice for a healthy living. The first stanza celebrates the placidity with which one can and should move amid the noise and chaos of life. It also calls for a peaceful coexistence with fellow human beings, but does it after qualifying it within a certain parameter: as far as possible, without surrender…
We see the poem allowing for peaceful coexistence without surrendering one’s own self-respect and dignity thereby making the advice a realistic rather than an idealistic one. Speaking one’s truth is balanced with listening to others, irrespective of their intellectual abilities because people have their experiences which may go beyond the domain of the intellect and human dignity is so much more than mere mental prowess.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
In the second stanza the poet advices one to avoid loud and boastful people as, simply put, they spoil one’s mood. (A much-needed advice in this world of ours). Also, one mustn’t compare oneself to others as there will always be someone who is it better or worse off than us which makes us either unnecessarily proud or uselessly bitter. A very important piece of advice is provided in the last line of the second stanza: that of enjoying our plans as well as our successes. This might sound like an odd advice in an age obsessed with celebrating achievements but it mustn’t be forgotten that oftentimes the journey is as significant as the destination.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble,
it’s 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.
Holding fast to one’s career is highlighted in this stanza as it provides one with a certain degree of stability in troubled times. It also advises one to be cautious in this world full of trickery but to do so without shutting oneself to all that is good and virtuous, for many people continue with their unremarkable and unremarked acts of heroism in their daily lives. The poem is peppered with qualifiers like, but, as far as possible, especially etc. which is due to the fact that life is a great complexity which cannot be reduced to an absolute. The beauty of the poem lies in its balance and its implicit acknowledgement of the limitations of its application.
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.
This stanza encourages one to be true oneself, especially in matters of love and affection. It urges one neither to make pretensions about love “especially do not feign affection“) or be cynical about it. A positive simile is used to describe the role of love during the hardships of life for it is one of the few things which thrives as perennial as the grass even in the face of hardships and hopelessness (aridity and disenchantment).
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture your 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.
A metonymy is used in this to describe the importance wisdom and experience of old age (counsel of years) which needs to be taken with a certain degree of openness and humility. Though one mustn’t be anxious, one must be prepared to take on the challenges of life as is highlighted by the alliteration nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. Once having disciplined oneself in a healthy manner, one mustn’t be too hard on oneself either.
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’s unfolding as it should.
This particular stanza contains one the most striking lines in the entire poem. The positivity of the message in this stanza is unparalleled. It involves recognising oneself as a part of the universe in the same order of the trees and the stars. By placing the individual as a strand in the great fabric of being, the stanza affirms that the cosmos is conspiring to make things happen as it should, whether or not it may lie within our comprehension.
Therefore, be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive him to be.
And whatever your labours and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
This stanza builds on the sixth stanza and encourages one to stay still and acknowledge that things happen according to the manner in which it is meant to be and that one should be at peace with God and with one’s soul amidst the noisy confusion of life. It eschews the narrow confines of religion through the line whatever you conceive him (God) to be.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
The last stanza celebrates perfection within the imperfections of day-to-day life. While much of the world is replete with defects, it is nevertheless a beautiful world. In such a world as this, happiness is not state but action; it is an effort and an attitude. Perhaps this is why the poem ends with the lines: Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Desiderata (“desired things” in Latin) is a poem which not only accepts imperfections of our world but also helps us rise above them and reminds us of the little joys and beauties abounding in our lives. It reminds us that one can still be a wide-eyed dreamer without shutting oneself to the imperfections of the real world.