A poem changed my life


The opening lines of ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann (1872–1945)
The opening lines of ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann (1872–1945)

I first saw ‘Desiderata’, the poem that redirected my whole life, in a noisy party at a friend’s house in the Swinging Sixties. It was a placard on the wall of his toilet. Its first line — ‘ ‘Go placidly. . . ’’ — made me laugh for the first time after months of coping with acute depression. Reading on, I discovered a Christian religious poem containing a philosophy which I, as a humanist, accepted on every point. Particularly apposite were these lines:

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others. . .
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. . .
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. . .
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

The full poem can be seen here

Perhaps, I thought, ‘Desiderata’ could help reconcile my parents, both committed Christians, to the atheist and humanist life choice my depression had reinforced for me. I was extremely tense when I gave Mum and Dad a wedding anniversary present of a wall plaque inscribed with ‘Desiderata’. But as they read it through, their pleasure and gratitude was evident well before they finished. After that, it was easier to ‘speak my truth’ to my parents if I needed to.

I have inherited that plaque, as a reminder of my parents’ memory and the valuable part ‘Desiderata’ played in reconciling me, in particular, to my father. Its words have comforted and guided me through challenging events and decisions all my life. So much so, that soon after Marilyn, my wife, encouraged me into writing poetry, I was tasked with writing a sonnet. So I decided to distil my favourite poem in my own words as ‘Desiderata for the 21st century‘, which was first published in Graffiti in 2014

Half a century after discovering ‘Desiderata’ I still hold firmly a philosophy of making the most of life for me, family and friends. My truth is that the beautiful drama of life is a performance, not a rehearsal.                      Howard Timms   January 2018