An Analysis of "Desiderata" (1927), a Prose Poem by Max Ehrmann

Updated on March 5, 2018
Glenis Rix profile image

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

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,

and remember what peace there may be in silence.

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.

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 poems distinctive features.

Definition of a Coordinating Conjunction

  • A 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.


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

— https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/desideratum

Desiderata

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.

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

The Tone of "Desiderata"

Desiderata is a didactic ie. morally instructional prose poem. 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 the salad days of 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.

The Form of "Desiderata"

  • The poem twenty-eight lines divided into six paragraphs/stanzas
  • The first two and last two stanzas each have four lines. The third and fourth stanzas 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's" 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 stanza - placidly, quietly, clearly - provide end rhymes and emphasise 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 stanza, emphasizing the personal nature of the poem, which may be regarded as a direct address to the reader.

Summary (Precis) of the Stanzas of "Desiderata"

Desiderata can be read as a blend of practical advice, moral and religious philosophy, and ethics. The poem starts with day to day practicalities of dealing with a world that is sometimes unequal or harsh, moving on to the power of human love, and ending with an injunction to be at peace with God and with your soul (which I interpret as maintaining a clear conscience).

Stanza 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.

Stanza 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.

Stanza 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.

Stanza 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.

Stanza 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.

Stanza 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.

© 2018 GlenR

Comments

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  • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

    GlenR 

    4 months ago from UK

    Yes, it's a wonderful poem. Ehrmann seems to have been multi-talented. A lawyer, and a businessman as well as a poet.

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 

    4 months ago from Riga, Latvia

    Thank you for the in-depth look at this poet and his poetry. This is an amazing poem. I will look for more of this work.

  • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

    GlenR 

    4 months ago from UK

    Dora, thanks for reading. I’m pleased that you enjoyed being reminded of these beautiful and wise lines of poetry.

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 

    4 months ago from The Caribbean

    Thanks for presenting this classic for our pleasure, and sharing your analysis. What a pleasant read!

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 

    4 months ago from SW England

    Yes thanks. In Australia at the moment. Let me know when you're in the south west.

    Ann

  • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

    GlenR 

    4 months ago from UK

    Hi Ann. Yes, very calming. I had a poster of it back in the days when it was at the forefront of public attention - 1970s - longer ago than I care to remember. I’m fine and looking forward to better weather! I have been to Singapore and back recently and will be down in the South West in April. Hope all is well with you. :)

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 

    4 months ago from SW England

    I do like prose poetry and occasionally enjoy writing it. This one is a favourite as it calms, wisely instructs and urges us to be better persons.

    Clear and useful analysis, Glenis.

    I hope all's well with you.

    Ann

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 

    4 months ago from Norfolk, England

    That's a lovely poem GlenR, and enjoyed reading your analysis of it. Thankyou.

  • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

    GlenR 

    4 months ago from UK

    Thanks for your support, Bill.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    4 months ago from Olympia, WA

    If I were to ever try poetry it would be in this form...prose poetry...but I won't because, well, I'm a prose guy through and through. Interesting article!

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