The poem's copyright A 962402 was registered by Ehrmann on January 3, 1927, as "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, etc. Card.", and was renewed by his widow, Bertha K. Ehrmann, in 1954.
In 1942, Max Ehrmann gave permission to Dr Charles Moore, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, to distribute copies of the poem to soldiers. Three years after Ehrmann's death, his widow included Desiderata in The Poems of Max Ehrmann, published in 1948 by the Bruce Humphries Publishing Company, of Boston. 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 1976 lawsuit against the magazine's publisher, Combined Registry Co., the court ruled (and subsequently the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld) that copyright had been forfeited because the poem had been authorized for publication without a copyright notice in the 1940s – and that the poem was therefore in the public domain.
Desiderata was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana. The word desiderata means “things that are desired.” Ehrmann said he wrote it for himself, “because it counsels those virtues I felt most in need of.” These virtues have been valued by countless others as Desiderata rose in popularity in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It is making a strong comeback today, as parents and grandparents are passing along this wisdom to their loved ones.
The Desiderata history is an interesting one, as there has been confusion surrounding the author of this prose poem. It is often mistaken that it was written by an anonymous author in 1692 and was found in Old Saint Paul’s Church.
The Rev. Frederick Ward Kates was rector of the church from 1956 to 1961. During that time he used the words of Desiderata in a mimeographed booklet he gave to his parishioners to read. On the cover of the booklet was the church’s name and year it was founded: “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore, 1692.” The two became inextricably linked and even today it is hard to tear them apart.
When Adlai Stevenson died in 1965, a copy of Desiderata was found by his bedside. He was preparing to use it in personal Christmas cards that year. He attributed the poem to an unknown 17th century author.
A Baltimore authority on early English literature said, “This work, as it reads now, was not written in 1692. The words are not those of the seventeenth century, nor is the composition.” 4
Max Ehrmann copyrighted his work in 1927. He died in 1945. Three years later his widow included Desiderata in The Poems of Max Ehrmann, published in 1948 by the Bruce Humphries Publishing Company of Boston. In 1967 Robert L. Bell acquired the publishing rights from the Bruce Humphries Publishing Company, where Bell was president, and then bought the copyright from Richard Wright, nephew and heir to the Ehrmann works. 4
When Robert L. Bell tried to protect his copyright of Desiderata against the “Combined Registry Company in its unauthorized publication of Desiderata in its August, 1971 issue of Success Unlimited magazine,” a U.S. Court of Appeals held that Max Ehrmann had previously forfeited and abandoned his own copyright. But through other court hearings Mr. Bell successfully retained copyright and in a 1976 court ruling, Les Crane, who had recorded a spoken word version, had to pay royalties to Mr. Bell.
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid copyright issues, sometimes the words have been changed. One of these deviations is from the original words “Be cheerful” to “Be careful.” While this change might not be in the spirit of Ehrmann’s writings, the true ending in both of these versions, “Strive to be happy,” is.
Go placidly amid the noise and the 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 the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or 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 in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Desiderata by Max Ehrmann.