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.

panther“The Panther” is an early-twentieth-century poem; it is famous among Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems and famous among modern poems. It is brief, written in rhyming quatrains, male and female rhymes alternating, in iambic pentameter. The only formal defect is the concluding line, which is done in tetrameter. This incompleteness is a suggestion that the work the poem has to do is in some kind of trouble with fitting into a form. The title tells us the being with which the poet is concerned, whose form we recognize apart from connection to any poetic form. But if we get pleasure out of a recognizable pattern, Rilke means to induce some discomfort.

The poem is subtitled In Jardin des Plantes, Paris. That is what Americans would call a fact–one could have gone there at the time and seen the panther whereof Rilke writes. Moreover, as facts go, this one would fail to attract attention. The poet does make the effort to attract attention and we should consider why this fact is of interest to him, but not to us. Why bother writing a poem? One reason is, because panthers are beautiful. That is the obvious reason, and I prefer to start there. Surely, that is also why hunters trap panthers and consign them to cages. The poem then is about this strange relation among beauty, being, and power. You could do worse than ask yourself, who loves the panther truly, the poet or the man who trapped it? And then there is some ambition in this subtitle. A hundred years back, Paris was more important a city, when it comes to what we call Enlightenment and its political form. A zoological garden is evidence of the reach of civilization into the wilderness and of empirical science into the world.

The title of the poem announces a picture–we have a mental picture of the panther, as of any other thing, and all particular specimens of a class are arranged somehow in accordance with that mental picture, such that we recognize both panthers and images thereof and the difference between them. That allows us to recognize the poet’s description of the animal. But Rilke has several ways to point to that idea of the panther in our minds and unsteady our resolve that we grasp the essence of the panther or what he means to do by poetry. The first is to start with the gaze of the animal: It is not merely to be looked at or classified; it has eyes of its own that see.

Why is the gaze of the panther important? Because it can no longer see the world. I think even the people who think of things as objects, neutral to morality or politics or anything, would grant that the panther is a wild animal–that is, one whose nature is tied up with untrammeled spontaneity. The cage trammels. You might say, the cage cages the motions of the panther but not the motion of its eye, seeing. You’d be wrong, Rilke suggests. A panther that cannot move within its world, which is a jungle, not a cage, cannot see either. We will accordingly get a certain distorted view of the panther and will have to work our way to anything like nature.

Rilke articulates the connection between how we think and how we live in the following way. Because we think we are owners of our knowledge of the world, we think we own the world, too. This is Enlightenment. A rational inquiry which we call zoology–including thinking about the world as the object of zoology–leads to zoos. Let us consider, starting from this subtitle, the most famous garden. Is this zoo in Paris a new Eden? Has man by his new powers made animals unwild again? Has man come back into the inheritance of the old Adam, who named the beings God brought before him? Does the panther really belong in a cage?

The central stanza gives us what we want: a brief description of the amazing beauty of the panther and its relation to its terrifying powers. Rilke is not satisfied, however, to show us what we want to see. His understanding of his task as a poet is not limited to beautifying things or displaying beautiful things for our pleasure. He ruins our pleasure in the description of the panther by pointing out that there is something invisible that goes together with the visible, the stunned will of the panther. The poet resolutely refuses to remove from the animal that which animates it. He wants to preserve the natural whole, and this requires that he improve the sight of those who have become habituated to seeing the various natures caged.

There is a natural relation between the power of the panther and its beauty. We are terrified of the one, attracted to the other, and might do terrible things to please ourselves. Rilke is trying to show us things we might not notice about the panther so that we come to experience the panther as what it is. He suggests that beauty relates to knowledge, too, not merely to pleasure. We are supposed to understand the panther as what it is; its wholeness or its nature is that to which its beauty points. Caging it and being thrilled by the spectacle is preparing to deny that there is any such thing as nature.

Rilke’s insistence on everything that is wrong with the actual picture he paints would not make sense if that picture were not typical of our situation, which I have called Enlightenment. We would not readily recognize a defective picture unless it had become familiar to us, unless it belonged to our situation. No one who thinks of panthers thinks spontaneously of the animal caged, except perhaps someone ruled by an intense fear, for that is not its nature. The difference between the title and the subtitle therefore returns as the difference between our idealization of our knowledge and its actual designs, which can be startlingly violent. People who prefer the beauty of the panther without its danger or who wish to remove from it any power are as willful as the panther; it is their will that takes form in the bars of the cage, which stun the mighty will of the panther. This suggests a double character to power: that which is natural and that which comes by art, like the cage, and which depends on knowledge. What separates the will of man from the will of animal emerges here as the making of cages.

Nietzsche would say that the highest form of that willfulness–that exercise and demonstration of human power–is science. The university treats the universe as its proper object of study and its property. That study leads to cages for panthers. I’m not sure Rilke would go as far, but the spectacle of what goes on in the zoo cannot but depress anyone who thinks the animals there are beautiful. The knowledge that led to the creation of zoos is past confident–its possessiveness shows that its mind is moved by anger.

The closing stanza has its own remarkable features. It starts as surprisingly as the first–but it does not quite get to the gaze–it starts by letting us know that we are going to hear something unusual. The opening of the eye of the panther turns out to be a rather rare event–the other things described seemed typical and common, if unnatural, in part or in whole. But now we get a rare glimpse of that which we should see in the panther and yet we do not–that which is unusual. The opening of the eye is quiet, which suggests danger, whether to the panther or to us, but also suggests that much is required to understand nature that is not obvious or that does not attract attention to itself.

The poet knows to pay attention anyway. These choices reveal that Rilke is not doing the job of pimping animals, their glories or their suffering, for the pleasure of thrill-seekers. He is trying to grasp the being of the panther even in this endangered situation; he is trying to do justice in his thinking to the nature of the panther. The attentiveness of the panther is tied up with its possibility to act. But the panther is almost entirely potentiality, not actuality in the cage–whatever it might see, it cannot do anything. And so that which nerves the animal dies in its heart, the image that it sees. It is not capable of love or desire, because it is held up as a spectacle. This somehow starts from our image of the panther and requires rethinking of what we think we get by succeeding to get what we ourselves desire.

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