Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Panther, by Rainer Maria Rilke (1903)

His eye-sight is so fatigued from walking behind the bars
of his cage that it no longer focuses on anything.
For him it's as if there were a thousand bars,
and in front of the thousand bars no world exists.

The soft pacing of sinuously strong steps
that go round and round in a tiny circle
is like a dance of power around a center,
in which great strength of will remains paralyzed.

Sometimes the curtain over his pupils lifts
without a sound, and an image enters,
penetrates the tense silence of his limbs
and ceases to exist in his heart.

In 1905 Rainer Maria Rilke moved to Meudon, France to take a job as Rodin's secretary. When Rilke told Rodin that he had not been doing much writing lately, Rodin advised him to go to the zoo (Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes) and look at an animal until he could really see it. 

The poet chose a panther, so benumbed by its captivity that it no longer recognizes any world beyond the bars of its own cage. It paces about in a cramped space, a symbol of great power brutally restrained and forced into paralysis. Perhaps once in awhile a thought or idea of freedom enters the panther’s consciousness, but it quickly dies, stifled by the immobility and the “silence” of the animal's useless limbs.

Rilke is the most famous German poet during the period of symbolism, an arts movement that started in France around 1860 and continued in Germany  till about 1925. In reaction to realism and naturalism, symbolist poets wrote in a metaphorical and imaginative manner, reaching for dreams, ideals, and often for other-worldliness. The realia of daily life are treated as symbols and ciphers of other modes of being: What you see is not what you get with symbolist poets.

Thus the panther is not simply a zoo animal. It is you and I, pacing about in our cages when circumstances prevent us from achieving our goals, or from realizing whatever we think we were born for. It is us, when we feel stymied, stupefied, alone, imprisoned.


Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf—. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

[Photo of Persian leopard from Wikipedia, "Black Panther." ]

1 comment:

  1. I always know that there will be something special on your blog; this particular poem of Rilke's is one that I'm not familiar with but it's beautiful. There's a good review of Rilke up at: