The Poets

June 27, 2009

Der Panther: A Rilke Poem

Imagine the height of happiness and freedom. Imagine living it, being it. Imagine that this blissful autonomy is all you‘ve known all your free and happy life. Then imagine crushing subjugation ending all of it in seconds. Would you not wish for freedom’s return; would you not pine away in melancholy at the loss of those former years? Here’s a question: Is it possible to forget it altogether?

Rilke’s Der Panther is a poem that wants to understand the mesmerizing strength of subjugation and the latent potency of freedom that lies within it. His example is drawn from the captivity of a large panther whose freedom, knowing no limit in a state of nature, is now next to nothing.

His poetic method was to behold things in the "silence of their concentrated reality." I imagine our poet standing before this cage, watching this large cat pace back and forth, back and forth … when suddenly the revelation: His freedom is dying in captivity. Then the poem:

The Panther*

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 center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

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

Of the Poem (Side Note):

Rilke, like so many other poets I’ve come to study, was heavily influenced by mysticism. He seems at times particularly existential (strange though that might be).

Sounding much like the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who abhorred ‘existentialism’, Rilke sees the human mind as an opening through which reality is made manifest- indeed, through which reality has its own being! He seems to want to convey what his own poetic mind has known- but to whom? He says:

"Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one; you can't impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe where he feels more powerful, you are a novice. Show him something simple which, formed over generations, lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze."**

In the 1990 movie ‘Awakening,’ Robert De Niro plays a patient suffering from a crippling state of catatonia- it’s so severe that he’s unable to move the smallest part of his body, unable even to speak. The patient, feeling his body a prison from which there was no escape, is likened to Rilke's Panther.

That scene and the superimposed narrative of these words left me in awe- “What an absolutely beautiful description of this patient’s malady,” I thought to myself.

This passage (at the time I didn’t realize it was a poem)- this passage and its powerful and penetrating way of expression has stayed with me to this day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had formally been moved by poetry.

Perhaps this encounter is why Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my favorite poets. Perhaps it's the mystery I find in the man. Who knows for certain ... still, every time I read this poet I cannot but help think that he speaks to us of himself- especially here in this piece.

*View comments area for Der Panther in German
**Quote from Rilke's
Duino Elegies


John W. May said...

Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehen 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.

Keith said...

Hi John
The Panther poem is excellent, but your personal analysis, insight and perspective re the reflections of confinement are extraordinary.!
You have a gift from God.

Nancy said...

A Facebook conversation:

NJS: How do you choose the poems about which to write? This work seems strikingly different from the others... but approached with the same keen intuition. Just curious?

~ June 28 at 11:15pm

JWM: I select only from those poets whose poetry I've read and been influenced by, and whose biographies I know ... then I choose from among their poems (especially if they've moved me in a particular way).

What do you find different about this particular one?
~ June 29 at 4:19am

NJS: I find the panther poem particularly chilling, especially the final stanza. I have to wonder what the image was that caused his heart to stir. Certainly not merely a perceived prey.

But I'll have to think about it and why I find it different, as it is something I feel and not something I think. For me, it is difficult to put feelings into words (as well as discern feelings around cerebral "thoughts"). But I did also find the poem timely, as yesterday at the zoo I was trying to explain the restless pacing of a cheetah to my kids; trying to liken it to their own often "boredom" as a means of explanation. Perhaps then, only seeing familiarity...

And as those words are spoken, wondering, as you do above, if I am not speaking of the poem (and your commentary thereof), but of myself. Not that I don't LOVE my life, but it is certainly 100% different than just over one year ago!

~ June 29 at 5:31am

JWM: Nancy, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment ... especially at 5:31 in the AM ... (who are you?) ...

~ June 29 at 6:43pm

Nancy said...

A Facebook conversation (continued):

Der Panther Remarks
I will have to admit that poetry has always been difficult for me. I never enjoyed it when I was younger. I didn’t get the symbolic aspects or depth - same goes for all literature. When studied in English classes I always struggled with it. Grammar I could do - give me something logical and forthright. I’ve always been a very much “on the surface” (perhaps shallow) person. I am also a speed reader, grabbing at whole sentences and even paragraphs at a glance, so to slow down and digest each word of a poem is difficult. I easily lose patience when it doesn’t make instant sense. The words, the rhythm… they confuse my gray matter.

So anyway, here goes:

1). My initial impression was that this poem was more contemporary that the others. But I looked back at the poet biographies you’ve posted, and I see that some are and some aren’t.

2). The structure also seems different; the way the poem flows. The first sentence wrapping from the first line to the second - and emphasized by lack of capitalization - catapulted me into the belly of it. It was like when someone takes your arm and sling-shots you forward for an instant acceleration! That change in rhythm and instant rush immediately set it apart for me. It also energized me and made me eager to know what else lie ahead.

3). But once again, I must defer to subjective feelings to attempt describe what seems different. It felt like sweet honey gliding down my throat, rather than meat which mush be chewed and digested. It felt primitive and raw versus intellectual and polished. I remember in my college Art History classes, falling in love with African art because of its primal feel. It spoke (and still does) to my soul. I am very drawn to that type of genre. It makes me fell alive and vital. If art work, this poem would be your Lascaux paintings, or the chiwara headdresses of the Bambara people of Mali (a long time favorite of mine), whereas the others bring to mind the Laocoon sculpture, or paintings of Peter Paul Rubens or Caravaggio. The other works feel more a task in description (though looking back neither are nor are not) while this feels like unearthing a deep mystery. Hmmm.

Whatever the case, it touches my soul and I can feel it remain in my chest long after the words have faded from my view.

4). And finally, although it did not occur to me until posting the comment to you, I think perhaps it was in feeling a familiarity and identifying with the poem itself that made it - bolstered by your comments - stand out in my mind. My house, my time, my life… are no longer mine. I am in a self-imposed “captivity” of sorts. “Would you not wish for freedom’s return; would you not pine away in melancholy at the loss of those former years?” Regardless of how blessed my life is and how I marvel at the miracle I am honored to be a part of, yes, there are times (not often) when I am wistful for former “freedoms.”

But is it that, or could it really be in identifying with held hope in the face of the hopeless?

“Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.”

My own heart aches for the giant cat’s sudden but brief elation crushed by the cold, dark, emptiness of the word “gone.”

“Here’s a question: Is it possible to forget it altogether?” ~ No.
~ June 30 at 9:54am

A.Z.F. said...

As of April 9th, 2010