The Holy Longing

The Holy Longing

St John of the cross quiet                       The Holy Longing                                       

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,

because the mass man will mock it right away.

I praise what is truly alive,

what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,

where you were begotten, where you have begotten,

a strange feeling comes over you,

when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,

and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter.

Now, arriving in magic, flying,

and finally, insane for the light,

you are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,

you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.


by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated from the German by Robert Bly


It has been a long time since I have been moved by something such as this.  I have read Goethe on many occasions, specifically Faust. Somehow this poem was missed in my explorations of his writing and I am overjoyed that I recently discovered it.

I hesitate to give my interpretation of a poem as I think each reader should develop their own understanding of the words. It speaks to each individual in a very different way and that is the beauty of poetry. Nevertheless, this is a powerful poem that deserves deep introspection. I suggest reading it a number of times both out loud and in your head. In this way you will begin to identify the sections that speak to you and can internalize them.

Other people’s words can be a beautiful thing when no amount of personal writing can begin to express the emotions under the surface. A great poem touches the soul, releasing all of the superficial layers of false self. Goethe was a master at this and his literary legacy has lived on.

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