Or, what do an 18th Century English antiquarian, an early 20th Century Indiana lawyer, Adlai Stevenson, Commander Spock and an obscure 1970s singer have in common?
When you wish upon a desiderata
Apologies for invoking the faddish Doge meme in the title of this piece, but it seemed oddly and counterintuitively appropriate for a discussion of desiderata, a strange English word from from the Latin desideratum (plural desiderata), meaning: something that is wished for, or considered desirable. According to the OED, the first appearance of the word “desiderata” in the English language was in 1651 in the religious treatise Act of Oblivion, by English theologian Nathanael Culverwell. Culverwell employs a “book of life” metaphor for good Christians achieving the perfection of divine grace (emphasis mine):
Whereas a Christian’s life shall be set out in a new edition; for all errata shall be corrected. Every iniquity shall be blotted out, and all desiderata shall be supplied; the book shall become perfect, and be looked on as a fair object to all eternity
This is basically the same sentiment that returns nearly three hundred years later. The song “When You Wish upon a Star,” written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington. It became a classsic in Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio:
When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
The curious case of Desiderata Curiosa
But let’s back up a bit. Francis Peck (1692–1743) was an English antiquary who published the book pictured above, Desiderata Curiosa, in 1779. An “antiquary” is itself a nice piece of antiquarian language, defined by Wikipedia like this:
An antiquarian or antiquary (from the Latin antiquarius, meaning pertaining to ancient times) is an aficionado or student of antiquities or things of the past. More specifically, the term is used for those who study history with particular attention to ancient artifacts, archaeological and historic sites, or historic archives and manuscripts. The essence of antiquarianism is a focus on the empirical evidence of the past, and is perhaps best encapsulated in the motto adopted by the 18th-century antiquary, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, “We speak from facts not theory.”
As Wikipedia goes on to note, “Today the term is often used in a pejorative sense, to refer to an excessively narrow focus on factual historical trivia, to the exclusion of a sense of historical context or process.” But here I want to salute Francis Peck with the original meaning of antiquary, teasing history from empirical objects rather than theory, which sounds like a noble practice to me.
The title of Peck’s great book perfectly demonstrates the antiquary’s collector sensibility. It keeps piling up sub-title after sub-title, a desiderata curiosa in its own right:
Desiderata Curiosa: Or, A Collection of Divers Scarce and Curious Pieces Relating Chiefly to Matters of English History. Consisting of Choice Tracts, Memoirs, Letters, Wills, Epitaphs, &c. Transcribed, many of them, from the originals themselves, and the rest from divers ms. copies, or the ms. collections of sundry famous antiquaries and other eminent persons, both of the last and present age: the whole, as near as possible, digested into an order of time, and illustrated with ample notes, contents, additional discourses, and a complete index.
Digested into an order of time, indeed. The word desiderata has been used in this scholarly sense for hundreds of years. But in the early twentieth century, it took on new, poetical life. In 1927, Max Ehrmann (1872 – 1945), an American writer, poet, and attorney from Terre Haute, Indiana, who often wrote on spiritual themes, published a prose poem called “Desiderata.” The poem languished in obscurity until, 1956, when, as Wikipedia tells the tale,
…the Reverend Frederick Kates, rector of Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland, included Desiderata in a compilation of devotional materials for his congregation. 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.
Ehrmann’s homily is all common sense and sensible virtue. A great ideal for living, if not a great piece of literature. Which is why, if it gets published at all anymore, it gets the “inspirational poster treatment”:
Ehrmann’s wishes upon the stars
Still, some of the sentiments of Desiderata are quite wonderful. Here is the full text, formatted as in the poster above:
Go placidly amid the noise and 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 the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and 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 with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Some good advice: “avoid loud and aggressive persons.” A dash of repression: “do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.” A few nice thoughts: “it is still a beautiful world.” And even a foreshadowing of the coming Beat, Zen, Hippy, New Age and 2001 “star child” movements and memes: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.” Still, though, a niche piece of work (“if you can get it /And you can get it — if you try….” sorry), until 1965, when former Illinois Governor and two time Democratic nominee for President Adlai Stevenson up and died, and “a guest in his home found the Desiderata near his bedside and discovered that Stevenson had planned to use it in his Christmas cards (Wikipedia: Adlai Stevenson II).
Ehrmann’s Desiderata becomes a thing
The ensuing publicity caused Ehrmann’s Desiderata to jump the shark and become a meme in the cultural soup, perfectly timed for the breaking wave of late-1960s hippydom. Star Trek’s Commander Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, recited the poem as “Spock Thoughts” on his 1968 album, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy. Once again, that confusion about this being an anonymous 17th century church document likely kept Ehrmann for getting credited as the originator of “Spock’s Thoughts.” But the culture was not yet through squeezing words of wisdom from the Desiderata sponge.
Desiderata takes home a Grammy
Les Crane (1933 – 2008), “born Lesley Stein, was a radio announcer and television talk show host, a pioneer in interactive broadcasting.” During his radio days, Crane broadcast from a studio at the hungry i, a San Francisco nightclub that was a launching pad for performers like Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce. And according to a 1990 interview with Casey Kasem, Crane was one of the people “responsible for creating the Top 40 (list of the most requested pop songs).” In 1963, Crane moved to television, joining ABC’s flagship station in New York. Everyone knows about the Beatles first American television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show early in 1964, but the first American TV appearance of The Rolling Stones was on Crane’s program in June 1964. Unfortunately, however, only New Yorkers could see it. Crane was a controversial innovator in late-night television in the 1960s, and his Wikipedia biography is well worth a read.
Almost no video survives from Crane’s years in television, and he is largely forgotten now. But if he is remembered, it will likely be for a Grammy award he won in 1971. For Best Spoken Word Recording. For a poem he narrated that became a hit, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard charts. That poem? You guessed it, Desiderata. This recording became “a New Age anthem” and is truly amazing/terrifying, a mashup of Age of Aquarius and the great Douglass Rain’s calm/creepy voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, have a listen:
I’d love to play that recording to Nathanael Culverwell, Francis Peck, Adlai Stevenson and, of course, it’s author, Max Ehrmann. They could discuss it on Les Crane’s TV show, while the Rolling Stones rehearse their introduction to America. What was Crane’s own opinion of his Grammy-winning work? Crane was asked about the recording during an interview by the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “I can’t listen to it now without gagging,” he replied. Gagiderata.
- Read the full text of Francis Peck’s book, Desiderata Curiosa, on Archive.org.
- New York Times obituary of Les Crane, July 15, 2008. Ginger trivia: Les Crane was married five times. His fourth wife was the actress Tina Louise, whom he met and married while she was at the height of her popularity as the glamorous sexpot Ginger on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.” The marriage lasted five years. The name of Crane’s fifth wife, for the last twenty years of his life, is Ginger.
- 1966 magazine photo spread: “Tina Louise becomes Les Crane’s Dream Bride“
- Here’s a nearly 15-minute audio (again, no surviving video) of Les Crane’s television interview with Bob Dylan, from 1965: ABC’s Nightlife with Les Crane and guest Bob Dylan. It’s pretty funny, though you can see why Crane lost the late-night battle to Johnny Carson.