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"Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann (1927): Analysis of a Philosophical Prose Poem About Mindful Living

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Glenis studied for a B.A (Hons) in English Literature after retirement. She was awarded a degree at the age of 67.

The poem “Desiderata” is an excellent focus for mindful meditation.

The poem “Desiderata” is an excellent focus for mindful meditation.

Max Ehrmann’s poem, "Desiderata," is a didactic poem, which he wrote for his daughter. It contains practical advice for day-to-day life, moral and religious philosophy, and ethics.

"Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann

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.

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.

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.
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.

Paraphrase of "Desiderata"

Paragraph 1

Advice to remain calm amongst the bustle of everyday life and to practice silence. Be on good terms with people without giving up personal values and assertiveness. Do not be argumentative but remain calm in interactions with others, to whom you should be respectful and attentive, even if you consider a person to be dull or ignorant. Everyone has a right to be heard.

Paragraph 2

Avoid people who are loud and aggressive, as they may upset your equilibrium. It is unproductive to compare yourself to other people as there will always be those higher and lower in the pecking order/moral stakes. Any such comparisons are therefore likely to lead to vanity or bitterness. Simply enjoy your own achievements in life and any plans that you may have for furthering your own personal development.

Paragraph 3

Whatever your occupation, treasure it and do your best, as it is better to be employed, however humble the work might be, than to be unemployed. Be grateful that you have employment. Be cautious when conducting financial transactions because many people will attempt to dupe you. But despite the fact that there are many fraudsters and con-men don't become blind to the fact that there are also many good people, who have high moral standards. There are heroes in every walk of life.

Paragraph 4

Don't pretend to be the type of person that you are not, or to have feelings that you do not have. Most of all do not pretend to love a person when there is no love in your heart. But do not underestimate the power of love, which survives in the most terrible of circumstances. Defer to the wisdom of the older generation. Develop a strong character that will help you to survive misfortune, but don't imagine bad things that may never happen - you may be thinking of such things because you are tired or lonely.

Paragraph 5

Don't be overly self-critical.You are part of an all-encompassing universe and no less important than any other component within it. You may not realise this, but there is a pre-determined and right path that the universe is following.

Paragraph 6

Accept of the reality of God, or a greater power than human, whatever you imagine 'Him' to be. Maintain a clear conscience. Despite all of the dreadful things that happen, the world is still beautiful. Remain cheerful and, most of all, put your best efforts into being happy.

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The Tone of "Desiderata"

"Desiderata" is a didactic, ie. morally instructional, prose poem. Max Ehrmann wrote it for his daughter but since it was published the advice it contains has been taken to heart by very many people who wish to live authentic lives. The pace is measured and calm, emphasizing the advice contained within the lines to be calmly assertive, respectful of others, non-confrontational, diligent, emotionally strong, principled and to cultivate a clear conscience.

"Desiderata" is a wonderful poem for contemplation and mindfulness practice. In my youth, I had a framed poster on my bedroom wall. It has long been lost. Revisiting the poem prompted me to find a replacement for my study. I like the artwork on the one that I have picked out.

Desideratum, plural Desiderata (Latin) - something that is needed or wanted

Introduction to the Analysis of "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann

If you are unfamiliar with prose poetry you may want to spend a couple of minutes reading the sections below that describe the characteristics of prose poetry. You will then have an idea of what to expect and be able to pick out the defining features in "Desiderata."

Bronze statue of Max Ehrmann at Terre Haute, Indiana 'Desiderata' is engraved on a plaque next to the statue and words from the poem are embedded in the walkway

Bronze statue of Max Ehrmann at Terre Haute, Indiana 'Desiderata' is engraved on a plaque next to the statue and words from the poem are embedded in the walkway

What is a Prose Poem and What are its Defining Features?

A prose poem may not look like poetry at first glance. It usually has neither the shape nor the rhythms or rhymes that are often regarded as the distinctive features of poetry. A prose poem is exactly what it says on the tin—it is prose. But it is prose with a difference:

A prose poem includes one or more of the following:

  • Heightened imagery, organic or subjective imagery, which may include emotions
  • Parataxis—a literary technique of short simple sentences with phrases linked by coordinating conjunctions.
  • Emotional effects

You will note when reading Desiderata that the many repetitions of the coordinating conjunction 'and' is one of the poem's distinctive features.

Definition of a Coordinating Conjunction

  • Coordinating conjunction links words, phrases, or clauses.
  • It is used when the writer wants to give equal importance to the phrases or clauses that it connects.
  • There are seven coordinating conjunctions—and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so.
  • The mnemonic FANBOYS might help you to remember them.

The Form of "Desiderata"

  • Prose poetry does not have the shape associated with formally constructed poems. At first glance, the text may appear to more closely resemble prose than the more usual form of a poem.
  • "Desiderata" is a prose poem of twenty-eight lines divided into six paragraphs.
  • The first two and last two paragraphs each have four lines. The third and fourth each have six lines.
  • There is no pattern to the length of the lines.
  • There is no rhyme within or at the end of the lines.
  • There is not a conventional rhythm to the lines—the rhythm is conversational but not the iambic pentameter that is said to relate most closely to the normal rhythm of speech.

The Features of "Desiderata" That Qualify it as a Poem

  • There is a liberal sprinkling of the coordinating conjunction and in "Desiderata."
    As explained above, a coordinating conjunction is used to give equal weight or importance to words/phrases within sentences. For example, line one suggests that it is equally important to be placid and to find peace in silence.
  • The three adverbs in the first paragraph—placidly, quietly, clearly—provide end rhymes and repetition, emphasising the calm tone of the poem.
  • Note the repeated uses of the words your, yourself, and you. One or more of them appear in each paragraph, emphasizing the personal nature of the poem, which may be regarded as a direct address to the reader.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is Desiderata all about?

Answer: Desiderata is, fundamentally, advice about how to live a happy and contented life.

Question: Is the word "desiderata" Latin or Spanish?

Answer: The word "desiderata" is Latin. It is the plural of the word "desideratum," as shown in the callout box in the article.

Question: Of what significance is the perennial grass mentioned in the fourth stanza of the poem "Desiderata"?

Answer: The reference to grass uses the literary device of simile (drawing comparisons to show similarities between different things). I suppose that Ehrmann is suggesting that just as grass is green throughout the year in a temperate climate love is perpetual/undying/fresh. Personally, I don't find it a particularly effective choice of simile (especially as much of the grass here in England died back during the recent drought). What do you think?

Question: What is the title of "Desiderata"?

Answer: The title is "Desiderata"!

Question: In what ways did Ehrmann take a formalistic approach to Desiderata?

Answer: Desiderata is written as a prose poem. The principal approach that Ehrmann has taken to form is the use of parataxis, an explanation of which in this article. He has given equal importance to each point of advice that he has given by using the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ to link clauses in the poem.

Question: What is the mood of the poem "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann?

Answer: Max Ehrmann wrote this poem to his daughter. It is didactic ie. intended to teach. I would say that it is both practical and moral in mood.

Question: What is the message of Desiderata?

Answer: Max Ehrman wrote Desiderata with his daughter at the forefront of his mind but the poem contains advice that can be used to advantage by everyone. Fundamentally, the message is about how to get through life happily, in a contented manner, and with a clear conscience. The poem is about how to conduct oneself in the best possible way in order to achieve these goals, It speaks of remaining calm, being polite, listening to the point of view of others, avoiding quarrels and those people who like to create them, and how to stand by one's principles in an assertive but non-aggressive manner. We should be mindful of not comparing ourselves to other people because if we do so the outcome will either be vanity or dissatisfaction with our own lives. We should make time to enjoy our achievements as opposed to constantly looking ahead to the next goal - in the words of John Lennon ' Life is what happens while you are busy making plans'.

Question: In the poem "Desiderata", does the phrase "perennial as the grass" simply mean that it comes and goes?

Answer: No. Something that is perennial lasts for a very long time. A perennial plant, such as grass, does not die for many years. It is a hardy plant that may hibernate during the winter but it starts to grow again when Spring arrives. In the context of "Desiderata", the word perennial means everlasting.

Question: Is "Desiderata" an acronym?

Answer: No. The word desiderata is not an acronym. You will find the translation of the word from the Latin in the article. (An acronym is formed from the first letter of other words).

Question: What is the theme of the poem "Desiderata"?

Answer: The theme of the poem Desiderata is the authentic lifestyle, which involves - loving oneself, being true to oneself, valuing one's employment, being dignified and self-assertive, without being disrespectful to others.

Question: What is the setting of "Desiderata"?

Answer: I assume that by the term setting you mean a location in time and/or place. There is no setting in Desiderata.

Question: What is the mood of the poem "Desiderata"?

Answer: Mood and tone in poetry are closely connected and sometimes cause confusion because they both deal with the emotions centered around the poem.

The tone of a poem relates to the intentions of the poet/voice in the poem. Desiderata was written by Ehrmann specifically for his daughter and the tone is clearly didactic - intended to provide good objective advice - but is gentle rather than firm.

The mood of a poem relates to the atmosphere of a poem, and to some extent, the feelings that it arouses in a reader. Some of the adjectives that I might choose to describe the mood of Desiderata are - calm, contemplative, peaceful, thoughtful, enlightened. A different reader might interpret it differently -perhaps dependent upon the extent to which s/he is willing to accept advice.

Question: Are there couplets, tercet, quatrains, and enjambment in the poem Desiderata? If yes, what are those?

Answer: The short answer to this question is 'No'. Poetry is most often thought of as a structured literary form. The patterns of couplets, tercts and quatrains and device of enjambment that are referred to in this question are structural poetic devices.

However, Desiderata is a prose poem. The form of this type of poem when first seen on a page, may at first glance lead to an impression that the text is prose, as it does not have the rhymes and metrical rythms usually associated with poetry. The defining feature however, of a prose poem is that the text includes one or more poetic techniques and so,essentially, sounds like poetry.

Couplets,tercets and quatrains are unlikely occurences in prose poems, which are usually written in sentences and paragraphs - as is Desiderata.. Enjambment is a technique in which the idea in a line is carried through to the following line, or lines, without punctuation at the end of lines.This technique might sometimes be used in prose poems but you will notice that each line in Desiderata ends with a punctuation mark - each line makes complete sense and is a self-contained thought.

The main technique employed in Desiderata is repeated parataxis, which is described in my article.

© 2018 Glen Rix

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