"Desiderata" (Latin: "things desired") is an early 1920s prose poem by the American writer Max Ehrmann. Although he copyrighted it in 1927, he distributed copies of it without a required copyright notice during 1933 and c. 1942, thereby forfeiting his US copyright. Largely unknown in the author's lifetime, its use in devotional and spoken word recordings in 1960 and 1971 called it to the attention of the world.
Max Ehrmann, 1948
Max Ehrmann of Terre Haute, Indiana, wrote the work in the early 1920s, starting in 1921, but he did not use any title. He registered for his US copyright in 1927 via its first phrase. In 1933 he distributed the poem in the form of a Christmas card, evidently entitling it "Desiderata" because a few days later he wrote in his Journal that a Kansas editor criticized his "Desiderata". Several years before 1942 a depressed woman gave psychiatrist Merrill Moore a copy of the poem without the name of the author, allowing him to hand out over 1,000 unattributed copies to his patients and soldiers during World War II. After Ehrmann died in 1945, his widow first published the work in 1948 in The Poems of Max Ehrmann. The Reverend Frederick Kates handed out about 200 unattributed copies to his congregation at Old Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore, during 1959 or 1960.
The 1948 version was in the form of one long prose paragraph, so earlier and later versions were presumably also in that form. Long after the author's death in 1945, hence not authorized by him, the work was partitioned into subparagraphs or stanzas.
The text was widely distributed in poster form in the 1960s and 1970s. It was first partitioned into a few subparagraphs separated by "distinctive spacing figures" in 1970 by Pro Arts and Crescendo Publishers. Later It was split into four or more subparagraphs separated by new lines in DePauw University's Mirage for 1978, and in the July/August 1999 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. In some versions, almost all instances of "and" are replaced by ampersands, "&". Other versions change "the noise and the haste" to "the noise and haste" and change "Be cheerful." to "Be careful.", notably the 1971 spoken word recording by Les Crane.
On January 3, 1927, Ehrmann registered "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, etc." under US copyright number A 962402. In 1948, three years after Ehrmann's death, Bertha K. Ehrmann, his widow, included "Desiderata" in The Poems of Max Ehrmann, published that year by the Bruce Humphries Publishing Company of Boston. In 1954, she renewed the copyright.
In 1959 or 1960, the Reverend Frederick Kates, rector of Saint Paul's Church in Baltimore, Maryland, included "Desiderata" in a compilation of devotional materials for his congregation. The compilation included the church's foundation date, "Old Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore AD 1692," which readers subsequently took, and sometimes still do take, to be the date of the poem's composition.
In 1967, Robert L. Bell acquired the publishing rights from Bruce Humphries Publishing Company, where he was president, and then bought the copyright from Richard Wright, nephew and heir to the Ehrmann works.
In August 1971, the poem was published in Success Unlimited magazine, without permission from Robert L. Bell. In a 1975 lawsuit against the magazine's publisher, Combined Registry Co., the court ruled (and subsequently the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld) that copyright had been abandoned and forfeited because the poem had been authorized for publication without a copyright notice in 1933 and 1942 – and that the poem was therefore in the public domain.
However, Bell refused to recognize the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals' decision. Because the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the decision was only valid in the Seventh's jurisdiction, the states of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Consequently, Bell continued to pursue others in other jurisdictions, either demanding they remove the poem from their publications, giving permission for a small portion to be published, or receiving royalties until his death in 2009.
Significant usages of the poem
- When former Illinois Governor and United States ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson died in 1965, a guest in his home found a copy of the poem near his bedside and discovered that Stevenson had planned to use it in his Christmas cards. This contributed further to the poem becoming widely known.
- Calling it "Spock Thoughts", Leonard Nimoy recited the poem on his 1968 album Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy. It also appeared on the 1995 re-release of Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space. His rendition is not the only one to change the second-to-last sentence from "Be Cheerful" to "Be Careful".
- In 1971, Les Crane used a spoken-word recording of the poem as the lead track of his album Desiderata. His producers had assumed that the poem was too old to be in copyright, but the publicity surrounding the record led to clarification of Ehrmann's authorship and his family eventually receiving royalties. His version peaked at number 4 in Australia in December 1971.
- In 1972, National Lampoon released "Deteriorata", a parody of the poem and of Les Crane's spoken-word recording.
- A Spanish language version by Mexican actor Arturo Benavides topped the Mexican charts for six weeks in 1972.
- In response to his government's losing its majority in the 1972 Canadian federal election, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reassured the nation by quoting Desiderata, "Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."
- In 2010, Ehrmann's home town of Terre Haute, Indiana unveiled a bronze statue by Bill Wolfe of the author sitting on a park bench.
- The actor Morgan Freeman, interviewed in 2012 on Oprah Winfrey's Master Class television special, explained how deeply the poem had shaped his life.
- Bell v. Combined Registry Co., 397 F. Supp. 1241, No. 72 C 1819 (Dist. Court, ND Illinois 1975) ("...the court finds that the author and copyright proprietor, Max Ehrmann, both abandoned and forfeited the copyright in Desiderata.").
- "Les Crane – Desiderata". discogs.com. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
- Ehrmann, Max (1948). Ehrmann, Bertha (ed.). "The Poems of Max Ehrmann". Bruce Humphries, Inc. p. 165. A photo-copy of the original text is in www.desiderata.com
- Ehrmann, Max (1952), The Journal of Max Ehrmann, p. 309,
1934, January 4.—An editor in Kansas criticizes my Desiderata ...
- Contrary to Bell v. Combined Registry Company, Desiderata is not in Between Dawn and Dusk by Rev. Kates for 1957 through its eighth printing.
- Katz, Barbara J. (November 27, 1977). "Popular Prose-Poem is No Work of the Ages". Washington Post. Retrieved 7 September 2016.
- Bell v. Pro Arts, 1973, ¶16
- "Desiderata", Mirage, DePauw University, 93, p. 43, 1978
- "Desiderata", Saturday Evening Post, p. 48, 1999
- [Max Ehrmann] (1972), Desiderata, New York: Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-517-53422-3
- Douglas, Jonathan; Rasted, Soren, Desiderata lyrics
- This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document: "Catalog of Copyright Entries (1927) New Series Vol 24 Part 1, citation number 1041".
- "File:Desiderata 1927 Copyright record.jpg". wikimedia.org. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
- Cavinder, Fred D. (August 1973). "Desiderata". TWA Ambassador. pp. 14–15. via Platt, Suzy, ed. (1993). Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. Library of Congress. Barnes & Noble. p. 212. ISBN 9780880297684. Retrieved 2011-11-10.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document: ", Copyright Renewal Database Long Record R127188".
- "Desiderata History". fleurdelis.com. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
- "Desiderata History". desiderata.com. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
- Bell v. Combined Registry Co., 536 F. 2d 164, No. 75-1753 (Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit 1976) ("The judgment appealed from is AFFIRMED.").
- "Bell v. Combined Registry Co., 536 F.2d 164 (7th Cir., 1976)". United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. May 14, 1976.
- Olson, Robin L. (1997), The Desiderata Controversy..., www.robinsweb.com,
The Desiderata has been removed from my site at the request of the copyright holder, Mr. Robert Bell. ... Ironically, Mr. Bell's actions are diametrically opposed to the meaning of the poem. He was quite obnoxious to deal with. [in 1997]
- Desiderata Licensing Information, Terre Haute IN Community Access Network, 1999,
Permission by Robert L. Bell [in 1999]
- "Robert L. Bell '42 [obituary]", Bowdoin Magazine, www.bowdoin.edu,
Robert L. Bell ... died January 15, 2009, ...
- Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 76. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
- "Hits of the world". Billboard. 25 March 1972. p. 54.
- Valpy, Michael (June 25, 2004). "The universe is unfolding as it should". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 7 September 2016.
- Boyce, Brian (August 27, 2010). "Max takes his seat at the Crossroads of America". Tribune-Star. Terre Haute, Indiana. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "Morgan's Poem on Master Class - Zavvi Rodaine". zavvirodaine.com. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
- Works related to Desiderata at Wikisource