8th March 2003

I've just been browsing through a bag containing the letters I wrote to my mother which she kept. I was looking to find something of her own amongst the collection. A little copy of Desiderata was sitting among the envelopes. The text was found in Old Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore, in 1692. [N.B. Please see the corrective note at the end of this piece.] It speaks to me as I read it, and seems especially fitting for these times we find ourselves in, so I am posting it here. In writing terms, I like the fact that it is anonymous. The words have their own gentle authority; no-one is trying to claim authority for themselves for expressing them. It is all a far cry from a literature of ambition, from a bustling parade through the publishing world. The sentiment is clear, the words are beautiful yet direct. It carries a message, yet even the conception of God is strikingly undogmatic. It is wisdom.

Here is the text:


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 own career, however humble; it is 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 cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is 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 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 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 labours 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.


A friend who read the above sent me the following correction, which I add here. My thoughts on the anonymity of the piece still hold true. My wonder at someone from the 17th century writing of a 'child of the universe' however, equating the human condition with that of stars and trees, has to shrivel and die. Desiderata comes from a time contemporary with Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet and belongs quite handsomely in that company. So here's the correction ... let's give Max Ehrman his due:

According to some reference books, "Desiderata" is still sometimes thought to have been 'found' at Old St. Paul's Church in Baltimore and to date back to 1692. It was actually written in the early 1920's by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945), a lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana. Like most of Ehrmann's writings, "Desiderata" failed to attract much attention during his lifetime; three years after his death, his widow had it and some of his other works published as "The Poems of Max Ehrmann" (p.165).

During the Lenten season of 1959 or 1960, Rev. Frederick Kates, the rector of St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, Maryland, used the poem in a collection of mimeographed devotional material for his congregation. Someone reprinting it later, separated from its original credit, erroneously describing it as having been found in old St. Paul's Church dated 1692, misinterpreting the church letterhead. The year 1692 is in fact the founding date of St. Paul's Church and has nothing to do with the poem.

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