Desiderata by Max Ehrmann : Poem Summary

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann: About the poem

Written in 1927, Max Ehrmann’s didactic poem (a morally instructional piece) Desiderata (Latin for ‘desired things’) offers a code for life emphasizing tolerance, inclusion and optimism. The poem is full of wise sayings and gentle guidance. The reader is urged to find peace within themselves, and project this inner peace in their dealings with the world. We see the poem endorsing an attitude to accept the world in all its entirety, with all its contrasts.

Considering his occupation as a lawyer, Ehrmann’s poem portrays his ethical and temperate leanings to the art of living. Max Ehrmann once wrote 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.”  That ‘humble gift’ which he mused about in his diary became a timeless legacy – Desiderata.

Desiderata is a prose poem that retains poetic elements like imagery and emotion, but in ‘prose’ or natural speech form. There is no undue embellishment in rhythm or tone.  In Desiderata’s case, its beauty stems solely from its clear meaning and tender intent. This simple telling of universal wisdom is perhaps what will continue it for generations to come. In its wisdom, the poem is comparable to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If–’.

Note:  Desiderata earned Ehrmann his most fame posthumously. The poem was widely published in numerous formats, in various languages. It also came to be released as a title track in a namesake music album by Warner Brothers in 1971.

Desiderata : Line by Line Explanation

Stanza 1

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

The opening promises a realm of tranquility ahead. The world is loud and fast. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sensory overload. Keep your calm or ‘Go placidly’ is what the poet advises. Interestingly the poet asks us to ‘remember’ this peace, implying that this is not a new experience. On occasion, everyone has felt a serenity when left alone in silence. Sometimes, we forget to draw into this ‘peace’ when we get lost in the frenetic pace of our lives. Therefore the reminder – Keep calm and cool off.

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.

Simply, give respect and keep your respect. The poet speaks of being ‘on good terms with all persons’ or getting along well with people. It is wise to play the diplomat. And who doesn’t like being loved by everyone? But we owe it to ourselves not to shortchange our own principles and beliefs. The poet notes that we might need to fight to do the right thing- ‘without surrender’.  Life is never neat. The poet understands the difficulty of the choices we face and that’s probably why he says ‘as far as possible’. Try not to get on the wrong side of people while doing the right thing.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly;

Truth’ here is the intimate sharing of one’s self- thoughts, experiences, feelings, ideas or beliefs. The poet guides us to speak our truths ‘quietly and clearly’.  ‘Quietly’ – allowing our truth the dignity it deserves while not imposing it on anyone. ‘Clearly’ so that those who genuinely want to listen will take something of worth.

and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

It takes courage to speak up. It takes an open mind to listen – a different sort of courage. The poet asks us to give others the respect that we would expect for ourselves. He points out that even people who seem dull or ignorant have their own hidden stories. It’s not necessary you’ll gain insights from every conversation you have, but ‘listening’ keeps us humbled and aware.

Stanza 2

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.

Throughout the poem Desiderata, we see an emphasis on staying calm. The poet believes this to be vital in achieving peace. Loud and aggressive people can give out unhealthy vibes, stirring feelings of stress and restlessness around them. They seek to dominate and become ‘Vexations to the spirit’ – or distressing to the soul.  You are the company you keep. The reactions these people provoke will simply disturb your equilibrium. Hence, the poet advises to best avoid such people if inner peace is the reader’s goal.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Be content with who you are. The poet advises not to evaluate our worth through comparisons with every other person. If you see yourself as better, misplaced pride would make you arrogant. If you perceive yourself as inferior, chances are you’ll likely turn resentful and petty. Bottom line, stay true to yourself. You have to be your own biggest critic and your own biggest fan.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Perhaps one of the most subtle ways anyone has said ‘Don’t rest on your laurels’. The poet tells us to allow ourselves credit where it is due – ‘enjoy your achievements’. Savoring the fruits of one’s labor makes the effort worth it. Yet at the same time, he tells us to enjoy our ‘plans’. This is a gentle nudge to go onward, plan ahead to move onto greater things; don’t just rest on past achievements.

Stanza 3

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

A career is essentially what you choose to do with your entire life. Regardless of what work you choose, the poet asks us to ‘keep interested’. Taking an active interest in your work ensures that your work remains interesting. Inevitably it leads to excellence.  In the ‘changing fortunes of time’, one never knows what Fate has in store. Excellence in what you do and finding joy in doing it become invaluable in good times or bad. This is ‘a real possession’ or asset of real value.

Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.

The poet’s words are a warning. Be discreet and keep your own counsel in matters of income and work. There are people who would manipulate a person’s opportunities, strengths and weakness or failures to their benefit. The world can be a scheming place and you should not give your faith blindly. You never know who will take advantage of your reputation or your earnings.  Be on guard and keep your counsel secret is what the poet is trying to say.

But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

The world might be a tricky place, but as the poet points out – there is also another side to it. You can find heroism in equal measure. Angels walk alongside the demons. There are people with morals and values – those who ‘strive for high ideals’.  In watching your back, the poet counsels, don’t ignore the people who have got your back – who are there to support you. As the poem reads, ‘let this not blind you to what virtue there is’. Give your trust and respect to people who have earned it.

Stanza 4

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.

Be true to your heart. Disney has built an entire franchise on this concept, not to mention how many other brands. Cliché this may be, it is still a challenge. Peer pressure, society’s expectations and the need for acceptance are realities that we constantly face. For peace in your heart, do not fake your feelings- ‘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.

Being ’cynical about love’ means to be distrustful or mocking about the existence of love. True Love when found, is eternal. It is ‘as perennial as the grass’ – it does not die after a specified period of time. Even when faced with tough and hopeless conditions – ‘aridity and disenchantment’, love will happen if it has to happen. The poet’s idea behind the use of grass as a metaphor is that like grass, love is unconditional – it does not require any special treatment or season to grow.

Stanza 5

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

The poet portrays Age as a teacher here. Each of the years we live makes us wiser through all we live through. ‘Counsel of the years’ includes our own individual experiences as well as the experience and wisdom of the elders. On the other hand, youth is marked by inexperience, passion and restlessness. When people are young, they are often guided by impulsion. The poet here urges us to give up those emotions of the youth and be guided by the wisdom that mankind has gathered over the ages. Use of the words ‘kindly’ and ‘gracefully’ reminds us to stay humble to life’s lessons without losing our dignity.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.

Strength of spirit’ is an inner force that is your own. Nurturing this strength is a disciplined decision to build character.  To the poet, this is important because it allows only you to be in charge of your life and happiness. Especially when trouble strikes, more often than not we are caught unawares. Help then is not usually available readily. In times like this, the strength of spirit that you cultivated will stand you in good stead. You are not helpless or at another’s mercy. You know that you can rely on yourself.

But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Sometimes our minds can be our worst enemy. The poet speaks of ‘dark imaginings’ or negative thoughts that could come from unnecessary worrying, distrust or anger. The poem identifies the root of most fears stemming from tiredness and isolation. Therefore he directs us to consciously steer away from depressing situations and rein our minds in. The ‘strength of spirit’ the poet just spoke about particularly comes in handy here.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

This is a question of setting standards. The poet is discerning enough to mention a ‘wholesome’ discipline. That refers to a code of conduct needed to promote our overall moral well-being.

Then again, the poet reminds us that we are human. Life being the unpredictable teacher that it is, can push us into grey areas – circumstances where a rigid adherence to our principles may not be possible. Then the poet reminds you to ‘be gentle with yourself’ – don’t be too hard on yourself. When life demands, we must find the grace to forgive ourselves and take comfort knowing we did our best in a particular situation.

Stanza 6

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.

Sure, there is a bit of philosophical dreaminess to these lines of ‘Desiderata’. But the meaning is still undeniable. When the poet says ‘you are a child of the universe’, he is reminding you that you are part of a bigger world than you can imagine. Scientifically speaking, on a cellular level, you are comprised of pretty much the same elements as the world around you – primarily carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen. The universe nourishes you with what you require much the same way as it nurtures other beings – right from living things like the trees to nonliving entities like the stars.

The words ‘You have a right to be here’ are profound. No one wills themselves into existence. Each of us were meant to be because of the designs of nature and fate. Therefore, we all have our parts to play. By reminding us of our right to be here, the poet is asking us to appreciate our place in the world and not belittle ourselves or our fellow entities with whom we share the universe.

And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Who are we to grasp the significance of our lives in the great scheme of things? The poet is trying to make us realize that we cannot control everything. We are but tiny specks – infinitesimal beings in this vast universe. We cannot presume to know or fathom the logic or pattern that the universe is working on. Seemingly unrelated events have their own significance, becoming cause and consequence in their own right – ‘the universe is unfolding as it should’.

Stanza 7

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,

Though the working of this universe is beyond our control, the poet is helping us find an anchor. The clue is in the verse ‘Peace with God’. This means to submit to God and let things run their course. Don’t fret on things beyond your control.

Understanding that God means different things to each person – ‘whatever you conceive Him to be’, the poet reaches out to a broad audience, making God more accessible. At a personal level, God represents the being that makes you face your feelings, examine your actions and keep your hopes alive. In short, He is the being whom your inner compass – your conscience – converses with.

and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

Life is a jumble — organized and muddled, predictable and random, joyful and sad. Sometimes one after the other, other times all at once. Then add the tangle of the way our lives crisscross with others’. You get the poet’s picture of the ‘noisy confusion of life’.

Our thoughts and deeds (labors and aspirations) are reactions to the contradictory situations and roles Life throws at us. Ideally these should be in sync with our souls. The ‘soul’ is your deepest self – who you are. Yet who you become is sometimes at odds with who you want to be. Listening to your inner self and staying true to your heart are important to keep the inner peace intact.

Stanza 8

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.

Don’t lose sight of the beauty of the world. Sure, bad things happen. The poet admits there are fraud (sham), drudgery (boring, hard work) and unfulfilled dreams. No one can pretend otherwise. But the sweeter parts of Life are also a reality that need to be acknowledged. The poet does not want the bad bits to blind the reader to the good that exists side by side. The world is truly a beautiful place, if you will allow yourself to see it.

Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

In the final word, less is more. Few simple words to provide the most impact. The poet of ‘Desiderata’ tells us to ‘be cheerful; strive to be happy’ – look for the bright side of life. Count your blessings. There is a lot in life to be grateful for. There are things to look forward to.