Thursday, January 27, 2011

'The Panther' by Rainer Maria Rilke (1905)

                   His vision, from the constantly passing bars
                        has grown so weary that it cannot hold
                        anything else. It seems to him there are
                        a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

                        As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
                        the movement of his powerful soft strides                
                        is like a ritual dance around a centre
                        in which a mighty will is paralysed.

                        Only at times, the curtain of his pupils
                        lifts quietly. – An image enters in,
                        rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles
                        plunges into the heart and is gone.

Translation: Stephen Mitchell

There is a piece in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, by Auguste Rodin, ‘The Age of Bronze’, which catches my attention every time I go there. The pose adopted for the statue is fairly classical: the naked man’s right arm raised forming a half-frame about the head, which is turned slightly upwards and away. Yet the body of the man is not that of Adonis. He is of average height, light build, his face modern. There is something compact in the body – the almost casual pose somehow allowing for a hint of tension, of latent energy contained but only just.

Some time after Rodin produced this piece, the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was his secretary. The story of the conception of ‘The Panther’ is well-known, though worth repeating. Rodin was keen that Rilke should experiment with similar approaches to his writing that he was employing in sculpture. To this end he instructed Rilke to go to the zoo and observe what he saw there and be accurate in such observations. Rilke went as requested and some days later returned to Rodin with ‘The Panther’.

I come back to this piece repeatedly, particularly this translation of it by Stephen Mitchell. I am fascinated by this poem, circle round it over and over, like the panther prowling back and forth in his caged enclosure. I love its sparseness, its directness, its simplicity. There is nothing extra, no embellishments. It is paired back to the essential elements and in this Rilke lives up to the challenge set for him by Rodin.

I don’t think any writer before Rilke (with the possible exception of Hardy) could’ve written something so physically realistic about the natural world. It is a poem also made possible, in a sense, by Darwin. There is a new kind of awareness at work; a fidelity of the actual that has become increasingly important since, particularly with writers such as Hughes and Heaney, among many others. It is a form of recovery from the pastoral, a re-invigoration of the senses through an entirely unsentimental and unpoeticised view of the natural world.

It is, perhaps, the first example of such realism in modern poetry. The poem engages us with a direct response to nature, though significant that this response is to a caged panther who “paces in cramped circles, over and over”. Rilke brings the panther into a state of pure presence (to borrow that much used term from French poetry); a presence not captured in writing about nature before this - at least, not in this way. And Rodin's advice isn’t simply theoretical. The poem embodies the idea of observational accuracy, taking us beyond the merely pictorial as the panther prowls in its cage, its sinews and muscles tensing, suggesting the sheer visceral power that exists at the centre of its life.

I see now that Rilke couldn’t have written that poem without Rodin’s example. It is there in the figure of that man in the Hugh Lane Gallery, his arm raised above his head; there in his feet, in his legs, in his torso, in his face. It is the power, then, of  being physically present in the world, not as a god but as a human.

Rilke left Rodin’s service shortly after he wrote this piece and would go on to depart from this style of writing for the more disembodied poetic of The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. I do wonder sometimes, though, how Rilke’s work might have developed had to stuck to this more concrete and observational approach, which his teacher had so strongly encouraged him to follow. We will never know, but we do have ‘The Panther’ (and the other pieces in New Poems) as an example of how brilliant he could be when he did.

Other translations of ‘Der Panther’ can be found at:


  1. This is fascinating. I knew the poem but didn't know the story behind it. I also love the way this is written, and particularly like the lines where the world seems completely made up of bars to the panther.

    Whenever I read this I always remember going to the zoo every week with my children and going to see a tiger. The tiger paced continually back and forth like this at the barrier where we watched, and Rilke has captured exactly what that suggested plus the physical details.

    I'm thinking of others who wrote so realistically about animals, while suggesting more, and D H Lawrence comes to mind, but he was later.

  2. Thanks Adele. Yes, Lawrence brought that sense of raw energy to his poems about animals, though they were more loaded with symbolism I think. I didn't focus on the symbolic aspects of this piece, but they are there. It is nature observed, but also nature restrained as the panther paces back and forth.

    I've been looking at Hardy today and enjoying the work. Yet, there is still something of the 19th Century about it. I think Rilke's piece is very much a 20th Century poem. Depsite its apprearance so early in the century, I think it is clearly a poem in what would become the modernist movement.

  3. At the end of his short life Rilke did return to his observation. Les roses' are best example.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Ron. I'll certainly have a search for Les roses'. Rilke's so known now for 'The Sonnets to Orpheus' and 'The Duino Elegies' that people sometimes overlook the early poems and from what I write here, the late ones also. Appreciate your comment on this.

  4. You may want to check this against another source. In line 7, I think "abound" should be "around," and in line ten, after the dash, I think "and" is "an." But thanks for sharing your thoughts about this excellent poem.

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    2. M.K. thanks so much for spotting those errors in the translation I quoted. Or rather for spotting the typos I made in transcribing it. On both counts you are right and I have duly corrected them. Again, thanks for spotting these and glad you enjoyed the post.

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