Arthur Carl Foell died in 1977 at the age of 82 (figure 4). The monument raised to him exhibits a mix of religious symbols that seem to point in the direction of ‘a little of everything, nothing too much.’ Very 1970s, that (figure 1).
The headstone has, in addition to the anagraphic data, the word “TRUTH” on it. The statue upon a plinth exhibits a nude male figure rising up into the air, looking skyward and releasing a pair of birds (figure 2). The nudity and pose of the figure seems to indicate that this is Foell’s soul rising up, freed from its earthly shackles. The Lynyrd Skynyrd ‘free as a bird now’ release of doves seems to overdetermine this idea, which is in line with the rose-tinted syncretism of the five faith symbols.
In the absence of references to UFOs or to mystic crystal revelation (and the mind’s true liberation) Foell (or his commemorators) placed the platitudes of the Desiderata on the plinth (figure 3), changing my image of Foell from a proto-new-age syncretist to a Polonius.
I had known this text since grammar school, when one of my teachers put it on the classroom wall. But I hadn’t known anything about it. It turns out to have a complicated textual history that would appeal to a classicist. So let’s have a look at the text on the plinth. What follows is a diplomatic transcription, offering, to the extent my font and wordpress formatting will permit it, the text as it is presented, warts and all. I ignore the line breaks in the inscribed text both for practical reasons and because I think they are irrelevant to investigating the textual history.
GO PLACIDLY AMID THE NOISE & HASTE, & 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 & CLEARLY; AND LISTEN TO OTHERS, EVEN THE DULL & IGNORANT; THEY TOO HAVE THEIR STORY. ‡ AVOID LOUD & AGGRESSIVE PERSONS, THEY ARE VEXATIONS TO THE SPIRIT. IF YOU COMPARE YOURSELF WITH OTHERS, YOU MAY BECOME VAIN & BITTER; FOR ALWAYS THERE WILL BE GREATER & 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 & DISENCHANTMENT IT IS 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 A SUDDEN MISFORTUNE. BUT DO NOT DISTRESS YOURSELF WITH IMAGININGS. MANY FEARS ARE BORN OF FATIGUE & LONELINESS. BEYOND A WHOLESOME DISCIPLINE, BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF. ‡ YOU ARE A CHILD OF THE UNIVERSE, NO LESS THAN THE TREES & 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 & ASPIRATIONS, IN THE NOISY CONFUSION OF LIFE KEEP PEACE WITH YOUR SOUL. ‡ WITH ALL ITS SHAM, DRUDGERY & BROKEN DREAMS, IT IS STILL A BEAUTIFUL WORLD. BE CAREFUL. STRIVE TO BE HAPPY. ‡ ‡
FOUND IN OLD SAINT PAUL’S CHURCH, BALTIMORE; DATED 1692.
The ‘prose poem’ now inevitably called the Desiderata was composed by American Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) in the period between 1921 and 1927, when he filed for a copyright on the work. This, at least, is the basic position staked out on the Pedia of Wiki page, and it seems correct. There are a number of elements here which point to how late a copy Foell (or his commemorators) got their hands on for inscribing on this monument.
To begin with, this copy has the subscript, “Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore; dated 1692.” According to the above-cited Wiki page, this ties the version of the text on the monument to unattributed copies released in 1959 or 1960 by the Rev. Frederick Kates of Old St. Paul’s. These versions contained the foundation date of the church, and this additional note crept in to the text at the end. The language of the text facially refutes any claim to being a product of the 17th century.
Textual variants also point to a late date for the Foell text; at least according to Wiki, the beginning of the text was originally ‘go placidly amid the noise and the haste’, i.e., with the second use of the article ‘the’. Further, at the end, what the Foell version has as ‘be careful’ was most likely ‘be cheerful’ in the autograph version from Ehrmann’s pen.
In addition, a late redaction converted ‘and’ to ‘&’ in at least many of the occurrences of the former. I don’t know if there are versions where this replacement was global, but in the Foell text it has been unsystematic.
Lastly, it appears that the autograph version of the text was in the form of an unbroken paragraph, to judge by Wiki. Later versions have broken the text up as the editor has seen fit, into sense-groupings. A nice example of the autograph text with sense-group paragraphing was published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1999. Our text has paragraphing marked on the stone by small fleur-de-lis, and in my text by double dagger marks (‡).
Foell died in 1977, and everything points to him or his commemorators having taken a 1970s redaction of the text for the funerary inscription. It is interesting, because the Foell text may well outlive our paper and electronic records of the text, and students of late-twentieth century America (or monks in a Canticle for Leibowitz post-holocaust world) may well find it to be definitive and datable to soon after Ehrmann’s text was written.
The Foell text, rendered into more legible form, would thus run as follows. Note that punctuation in the inscribed text is spotty, altering the meaning of several phrases. I’d guess this is to be laid at the feet of the cutter, not the commemorators.
“Go placidly amid the noise & haste, & 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 & clearly; and listen to others, even the dull & ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud & aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain & bitter; for always there will be greater & 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 & disenchantment it is 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 a sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue & loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees & 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 & aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery & broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. be careful. Strive to be happy.”
Worth the effort of writing all of the above is the discovery that the poem was recited by Leonard Nimoy as Spock Thoughts on his second album, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy (1968). For this, we can only be grateful to God, whatever we conceive him to be.