Every so often I post a different poem, with a brief reflection to help with your reading. Up this week is “The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke (1875 – 1926) was a Austrian poet and novelist. His work is written in German, and so requires translation. Because of this, the natural rhythm and rhyme schemes of the author are lost. Still, Rilke’s lyrical genius stands out: he is considered by many to be one of the greatest (and lyrically intense) poets of the 20th century.

“The Panther” tells the striking story of a caged animal, tired and weary from years of being locked up. The once fast, fearsome, and violent cat has been reduced to eating its food pre-caught, pacing in circles for years on end. The images of the poem are powerful because they show the devastating effects of monotony and loss of freedom. It is not just physical imprisonment that the animal feels, the bars are also enslaving its very consciousness and will. Images of life, of the vibrancy and bright hope of the outside world, cannot pierce the heart of a creature so enslaved.

This bondage and enslavement of the will is the story of every prisoner, anyone who has ever felt bound to something too great to escape. The poem then is also a picture of the sinner or the addict, chained to sin, vice, and human habit, bound by the inherent weakness of the human will and aching for rescue.

Or is just about a trip to the zoo?


THE PANTHER

by Rainer Maria Rilke

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.

 

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