St. George and the Dragon by  Briton Riviere

St. George and the Dragon by Briton Riviere (1840-1920) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

“How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my all time favorite poets. He wrote mostly in German (but in French as well), and is considered by many to be Germany’s greatest poet since Goethe. The above is from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Letters to a Young Poet (probably his most famous prose piece; doesn’t even his prose sound like poetry??).

So why am I foisting poems onto you? Like many poets, faith is an integral theme in his work. I’m not actually sure what religion Rilke espoused, but I read this poem today for the first time and it is a truly elegant answer to the question: Why be pagan in a modern world? So I wanted to share.

Sonnets to Orpheus #24
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Robert Temple

1 Shall we break off, then, our ancient friendship
With the great gods, who decline to solicit our favour?
Just because the hard steel which we forge never knew them?
And shall we suddenly search for their whereabouts on a map?

5 These friends in their immensity, – they who receive our dead from us, –
At no point affect the slightest movement in our gear-wheels.
We have removed our banquets afar off,
Our baths are now more advanced.

9 And we continually outrun their messengers, for long now too slow for us.
We solely depend on one another now, but without knowing one another.
Our paths no longer trace delicate meanders,

12 But are plotted by degrees. And the olden fires burn now
Only in steam boilers to lift hammers, – ever larger ones.
And we meanwhile lose our strength, like swimmers.

What do you think? I’ll put my own thoughts in the comments section below, and I hope you’ll do the same!