Those flower-power words of wisdom known as Desiderata

Ah, people, the things I dredge up for you from our shared past! Tonight’s instalment: Desiderata!

It’s all coming back to you, isn’t it? “Go placidly amid the noise and haste… ” Come on, admit it: you had the poster up on your wall. In about 1972, everybody had the poster up on their wall. (Including me, in my bedroom right here at the Manse, the house I grew up in.) And inevitably the words of wisdom from the anonymous – okay, not so much, but more on that in a minute – deep thinker/poet who wrote it ended with a citation along the lines of “Found in Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, dated 1692.” Which made us all think that the words of wisdom – “Remember what peace there may be in silence;” “Speak your truth quietly and clearly;” ‘Always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself;” and so on – were more than 300 years old. Amazingly (or so we thought in those heady days) they plugged right in to the general early-1970s zeitgeist. I mean, wasn’t everybody in the Age of Aquarius “a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars”?

Groovy, man.

Anyway, so popular was the “ancient” prose poem that it even became a hit spoken-word recording (with an angelic chorus of backup singers drumming up a musical chorus out of the aforementioned “child of the universe” bit), and I have done you all the favour of finding and posting it. (I have to tell you that I opted for the video featuring the image of the plain old single because all the other versions featured sickly-sweet or over-ethereal – or both – images of waves on the beach and stars in the sky and too-pretty pastoral landscapes, and it was all way over the top.)

Desiderata

Come on, admit it – you had the poster on your wall. I know I did. Click to enlarge and read it all over again.

Now, when I went looking into the details behind Desiderata – it having been dredged out of my deep-core memory by a poster on a wall that I came across this past Thanksgiving weekend – I was quite sure that the voice behind that hit spoken-word single was none other than that of  Vincent Price, the midcentury actor known for his campy horror-movie roles. I was sure that Price had made a bid for coolness in the 1970s with Desiderata. But no, the recording was by one Les Crane, a talk-show host whose interesting New York Times obituary you can read here. (Did you know that Les Crane was once married to Tina Louise, the gorgeous bubble-brain Ginger the Movie Star on Gilligan’s Island?) However, my memory was not completely incorrect; I discovered through various tiny references on the internet that Vincent Price did make that coolness bid, by reciting Desiderata on an episode of the Carol Burnett Show. (Memo to Vincent: best not to try for coolness on the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road show there was. Check out Steve Lawrence – in my post here – making a hash out of Harry Nilsson‘s sublime Without You, on that same show, if you don’t believe me.) Sadly, this doubtless immortal recitation is not (yet) available for the watching on YouTube.

Anyway, now that I’ve got the soaring chorus – “… You have a right to be here!…” stuck in your head, let me tell you a bit about the origins of Desiderata. You can read the helpful Wikipedia entry here, but the main point is that it was composed in 1927 by one Max Ehrmann, an American writer. In 1956, the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore “included Desiderata in a compilation of devotional materials for his congregation,” Wikipedia explains. “The compilation included the church’s foundation date: ‘Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore A.D. 1692.’ Consequently, the date of the text’s authorship was (and still is) widely mistaken as 1692, the year of the church’s foundation.”

I found one other entertaining tidbit in that Wikipedia entry: “In response to his government’s losing its majority in the (1972) Canadian federal election … Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau quoted the Desiderata by reassuring the nation that ‘the universe is unfolding as it should.’ ”

Hoo boy. To which I can say – in a reference with which any Canadian old enough to remember having Desiderata as a poster on the wall will also surely be familiar – only this:

“Take time. Take care. The land is strong.”

18 thoughts on “Those flower-power words of wisdom known as Desiderata

  1. Les Crane also shows up memorably in a Phil Ochs song about lower-case liberals, as I recall. Will avidly read the obit next to see if that’s mentioned. Sadly, the voice I hear in my head whenever I read the poem is that of the dog, Goliath, from the old Davey and Goliath claymation animations from which no midcentury Canadian nostaligia buff can ever be fully e-mansepated.

      • The show didn’t have anything to do with Desiderata and the connection in my head is off the wall, so to speak, but I’m astonished that a mid-century manse girl wouldn’t remember Davey and Goliath! Wholesome Christian messages for kids in a sort of Mr. Potato Head format. Believe it was a Lutheran initiative. There are several clips on YouTube, including a pretty wonderful parody with a Stephen King twist.

      • I tracked down those YouTube clips, but I think I must somehow have missed Davey and Goliath in my childhood. Given my recent ramblings here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, though, I was tickled at how this intro to the show had a small bit of Thunderbirds quality to it. But even for a person with no Davey and Goliath background, the Pet Sematary parody was pretty entertaining – thanks!

  2. I was long past the Age of Aquarius in the 1960s-70s, so I didn’t have Desiderata on my bedroom wall, but I do have it now on the wall of my man-cave in the basement. And beautiful it is: behind glass printed on parchment-like paper and framed in gold! To my best recollection it was included with a bunch of “stuff” I bought for likely $2 at a country auction 20 years ago. Rereading it today, it strikes me that the most appropriated line is “Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”

    • It’s funny you should mention that line, Keith. Last night, when I re-read Desiderata for the first time in many years, I too was struck by the wisdom of “Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.” Gracious, could it be that we’re all getting older, and seeing that it’s not all bad? Also: isn’t it great that when one is older one finds time to attend auctions, where you find treasures like a vintage Desiderata poster among much other “stuff,” for a song?

  3. Having just listened to National Lampoon’s 1972 parody of Desiderata, titled “Deteriorata,” for the first time in decades I searched for the “source (i.e., Desiderata),” and was also certain Vincent Price did the narration… which is how I came across this post. Possibly we’re confusing his narration in Thriller, but that was 10 years later and the two songs aren’t remotely alike.

    I preferred Deteriorata to Desiderata but have been a Phil Ochs fan since the 1970s. He remains an under-rated and under-appreciated artist from that era.

    • Hey rfcno, thank you for drawing the hilarious Deteriorata to my attention! Somehow or other I had never heard of it, even though I too went through a National Lampoon pahse (didn’t we all?) way back when. “You are a fluke of the universe…” Priceless! And I totally agree on the Phil Ochs front.

  4. I am absolutely sure that Vincent Price recorded ‘Desiderata’ on 45 rpm in the early ’70’s; my sister had a copy and the backing vocals, particularly in the intro, are much more forceful than Les Crane’s version. I’m positive it was Vincent Price! Can’t find it on the internet, though.

      • Oh my. Lorne Greene! Pa Cartwright! On The Johnny Cash Show! in 1970! Doing Desiderata! Was everybody stoned then, or what? (I kind of think I know the answer to that.) I always do appreciate Lorne Greene’s accent – that midcentury mid-Atlantic thing that you hear on old CBC newscasts and whatnot. Do you suppose any real humans ever talked like that? If so, we’ve come a long way, baby. And I suppose not necessarily in a good way; deep English Canadian-speak – which I got a bit estranged from in my almost two decades in Quebec – now sounds to my ears like it has a bit of the proverbial southern drawl to it. Anyway: Leonard Nimoy too. Why does he have to yell at us when reciting the piece? And finally: Richard Burton doing Desiderata, anyone?

    • Flip, I am glad to know that I am not the only person who thought Vincent Price had recorded Desiderata. I just tried yet another search for it online, and found (surprise, surprise) my own post at the top of the list. But judging by one or two other comments on the subject, on completely different blogs, it does look like Price must have recorded it, as you (and I, and several others) remember – either that or we’re all having a Vincent Price/Desiderata hallucination/memory fail. Surely the internet will cough up this elusive gem sooner or later!

      • The few snippets of this song/poem I remember have been resonating since I learned that my friend passed away this past Sunday. When this song came of age in the 1970s she was a young woman starting her family. Those of us who knew her and benefited from her love and generous spirit are truly heartbroken.

        I don’t know why it started last night, I kept hearing “no less than the trees and the stars you have a right to be here.” So I looked for Desiderata online, and landed on this page. I guess now that I read the entire text, the line most applicable in my current situation is: no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. It’s difficult to believe sometimes, and this is one of those times.

        Rest in Peace, dear Dottie Tillilie, we’re taking comfort in knowing you are flying with the angels.

      • What a lovely tribute to your friend Dottie! Despite my gentle mocking of the Desiderata trend of the 1970s, I do think the words about the universe unfolding as it should can be, and often are, a great comfort in sad and difficult times. My thoughts are with you in the loss of your dear friend.

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