Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: The famous poem Desiderata was discovered in a church in 1692.
Origins: Almost every copy of Desiderata carries the claim that the original was found in Old Saint Paul's Church in Baltimore in 1692. It's comforting to believe that some truths are universal, that the beauty of the human spirit is unchanging, ever present, and inviolate. A poem rife with applicability in today's world being found in a church so many centuries ago supports those comforting beliefs. That it's an unsigned piece makes it all the more beautiful: one sees these inspirational words as the
As pureheartedly meaningful as its words are, Desiderata's history doesn't quite match up with the fable built around it. The poem wasn't penned by one of our nameless ancestors many centuries ago; it was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945). This selfless writer of many centuries ago was actually a lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana. Like most of Ehrmann's writings, Desiderata failed to attract much attention during his lifetime; three years after his death, his widow had it and some of his other works published as The Poems of Max Ehrmann.
Confusion over Desiderata's authorship arose in 1956 when a Maryland pastor used the poem in a collection of mimeographed material for the congregation of Old
Some member of that congregation must have liked the poem well enough to pass along to a friend. From there it passed through many hands, along the way losing the attribution to Max Ehrmann and gaining — through a muddling of the letterhead's message — the claim that the work itself had been discovered in Old
The poem then found a foothold in California, where San Francisco's "flower children" embraced it delightedly as a centuries-old affirmation of their philosophy of love and peace. From there it spread as underground printers, thinking they were dealing with a work in the public domain, started cranking out inexpensive posters.
The piece hit a new level of popularity after a copy was found on Adlai Stevenson's bedside table when he died in 1965. He'd been intending to use the "ancient" poem in his Christmas cards.
The spoken version of Desiderata earned a Grammy award for Les Crane in 1971. Like many others, he'd seen the words on a poster and mistakenly thought them to be in the public domain. That error cost him — he was later forced to share the royalties with the late Ehrmann's family. (Ehrmann's original 1927 copyright was renewed in 1954 by Bertha Ehrmann, and is now held by
Barbara "copy wronged" Mikkelson
Last updated: 10 July 2007
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