Desiderata

Desiderata

[dih-sid-uh-rey-tuh, -rah-, -zid-]

"Desiderata" (Latin for "desired things", plural of desideratum) is an inspirational prose poem about attaining happiness in life. It was first copyrighted in 1927 by Max Ehrmann.

In the 1960s, it was widely circulated without attribution to Ehrmann, sometimes with the claim that it was found in Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore, Maryland, and that it had been written in 1692 (the year of the founding of Saint Paul's). Nevertheless, the estate of Ehrmann has kept various editions of the work in print. A spoken-word recording of the essay was made by Les Crane and reached #8 on the Billboard magazine charts in late 1971.

At least one court case has held the poem to be forfeited to the public domain because of distribution during and before World War II, but other cases have ruled that the assignee, through Ehrmann's heirs, holds the purchased copyright.

History

The author is Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana, who lived from 1872 to 1945. It has been reported that Desiderata was inspired by an urge that Ehrmann wrote about in his diary:

I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift -- a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods.

Around 1959, the Rev. Frederick Kates, the rector of Saint Paul's Church in Baltimore, Maryland, used the poem in a collection of devotional materials he compiled for his congregation. (Some years earlier he had come across a copy of Desiderata.) At the top of the handout was the notation, "Old Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore A.D. 1692."

As the material was handed from one friend to another, the authorship became clouded. Copies with the "Old Saint Paul's Church" notation were printed and distributed liberally in the years that followed. It is perhaps understandable that a later publisher would interpret this notation as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old Saint Paul's Church, and that it had been written in 1692. This notation no doubt added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem, despite the fact that the actual language in the poem suggests a more modern origin. The poem was popular prose for the various spiritual movements of the 1960s and 70s.

When Adlai Stevenson died in 1965, a guest in his home found a copy of Desiderata near his bedside and discovered that Stevenson had planned to use it in his Christmas cards. The publicity that followed gave widespread fame to the poem, as well as the mistaken relationship to Saint Paul's Church.

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