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”?
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.)
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.”