The Panther is a powerful poem written by Rainer Rilke that works on two levels; the apparent level and the metaphorical level. And in both levels, it delivers a powerful impact with its heavy message.
If you have been interested in poetry and have never heard the name Rainer Maria Rilke, do not worry for you are not the only one. Many people who read poetry are not aware of his works, but they should be.
Rilke was one of the most influential and popular German poets of his time. Perhaps the bridge of translation was not strong enough to bring his work to a more familiar language for the people of the US.
Rilke delivers the message straight on, without much embellishment. His words are powerful, the metaphors are sensible, and the imagery is made to invoke emotions in the readers.
But the best part about his poems, especially “The Panther” is that it is so simple to take in, yet it forms a complex meaning inside the reader’s mind.
Let’s take a look at the poem first and then at the simplification, meaning, and analysis of the poem.
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. (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)
The panther’s vision is obstructed by the bars of the cage It has grown weary that it cannot look at anything else All he sees is an iron bar, and beyond those bars, some unfamiliar world As he paces around in a small space, again and again in circles his powerful soft strides look like a part of a ritual dance and in the center stands a paralyzed mighty will Only rarely the panther dares to look up, quietly he sees the image and goes through the tensed arrested muscles it goes into the heart and the image is gone. It looks down again.
The Apparent Meaning
After reading the poem, the apparent meaning is very clear to see and understand. The poet is saying that the panther behind the bars is in a very tense state.
A creature that is so powerful and so majestic has turned into a husk of a living thing. A scared and traumatized animal with nothing to do other than pacing in circles.
The entire scene creates a very impactful impression in our hearts. The readers feel sorrow and sympathy, imagining such a fierce creature being forced to act against his nature. To go through the torture without any respite.
The panther is taken away from its home, from the familiar place where it can move freely, and kept inside this jail where not only he is physically tensed, but he cannot bear the mental pressure as well.
He is forced to act against his nature which is one of the most difficult things any animal, including humans, can do.
“The panther paces in circle” shows his discomfort, and the agony he is in. He dares not to look around as all he sees are hundreds of iron bars. But that’s not the worst part.
Even beyond the bars, he sees a world that is not his. He sees a strange world that is just as alien to him as the world where he is now. Inside or outside the cage makes no difference; everywhere he sees a prison.
Rilke uses these powerful images and metaphors to create a sense of sympathy and empathy for the panther. To look at what is happening to such a magnificent creature.
There are themes of injustice, wrongdoing, and unwarranted suffering among other shades of cruelty and inhumane treatment of an animal. Readers can put themselves into the panther’s position and feel its distress.
The Deeper Meaning
Apart from the apparent meaning, which is powerful enough in itself to make this poem so wonderful, there is a deeper and more relatable meaning to this poem. Instead of the panther, what if it is a human?
Not literally a human behind the bars, but metaphorically. How does someone feels when his or her desires are kept behind the bars, or perhaps unexpressed emotions are stuffed inside?
Or the most common one, a feeling of not belonging in a place. We know that the poet of this poem, Rilke had a difficult time when he was in Paris.
Perhaps he was not able to express himself clearly, or maybe he felt that he cannot understand the creative environment of the city and the people and this poem is a metaphor for that.
The greatness of this poem lies in its objectivity. The metaphorical meaning of something being captured in a place where it is not allowed to move freely fits perfectly for almost all creative individuals.
Be it unexpressed emotions, untold feelings, unsaid words, or unrealized potential, all of these things if kept inside the cage will turn the individual into the panther inside the cage. A mighty will that remains paralyzed.
The Last Stanza
While most of the poem is powerful and has a deep meaning, the last stanza stands out like a black bead on a white cloth. There is a question that every reader will have after reading this poem.
What is the image that the panther sees and it sinks inside the heart right before it is gone? Let’s take a look at the last stanza and find out.
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.
We know that the panther is distressed and keeps pacing around in a circle. It does not look at what is happening around him. But then, after a lot of effort, he gathers his courage and looks up.
The image of the same bars and the unfamiliar world around him. The panther paces around hoping to be in a different place. Hoping that it might reach home again.
After completing his ritual, he manages to lift his eye up and see if his ritual has worked or not. But there is no change. He sees exactly what he saw before. Then he looks away in an instant, and the image is gone.
The way this poem ends has a very sad and disheartening meaning, both in literal and metaphorical ways.
Think about it. If we are talking about the will of a man or the desires or ambitions of a person, no matter what he or she does, in the end, they are still in the same place. What a somber poem.
Themes and Conclusion
The poem mostly brings out the theme of hopelessness and sadness. But it is also about unrealized potential. The strength in the panther is unbound, yet his muscles are tensed and paralyzed.
The panther has the will to take on any foe, and yet here he paces around in a circle, afraid to lift his eyes and look at the bars. It is the crushing of the will that hits readers the most in the heart.
The Panther makes us feel sad in two ways, one is sympathy with the literal meaning of the poem; the poor panther, and the torture it goes through every second.
The second is empathy with the metaphorical meaning of the poem; we realize the oppression and all the unrealized potential in us that has been caged behind the bars just like the panther.
It makes us feel sad. All our ambitions and our wild dreams are deemed to be just dreams. The candle that burns inside us desperately wants to be a wildfire.
We see a metaphorical reflection of ourselves in the panther’s soul and we feel its helplessness. But the true impact of the poem occurs when we realize that when we are looking at the panther, we are also looking at a metaphorical mirror.
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