Rainer Maria Rilke’s Der Panther – The fusion of world and self within poetry and the idea of being lost in translation


One of my favorite poems is “Der Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke. As my first language is German, I naturally read the poem in this language and developed a strong attachment to Rilke’s use of imagery. It stirred something within me. A couple of years ago, I read the poem in English and felt somewhat surprised – I was not feeling it. I reasoned that words, while they may be translated from one language to another, convey a unique feeling, a feeling which may or may not be translated across the language barrier. That led me to delve deeper into the world of Rilke to explore this divide.

A panther is a cat-like animal found in the jungles of South America. It is, in its fundamental existence, one of the many forms of nature, nothing more and nothing less. Why then, has a panther become more than just a being, but so central a figure as to be the subject of a poem that was to be translated into many different languages, to be studied and cherished to this day? Arguably, the answer can be drawn from history and to a great extend from introspection into our own nature.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Der Panther, in its entirety as a poem, presumably reflected not a moment of spontaneous contemplation by its poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, but a lifetime of empathetic living. Already in Rilke’s early years, his biographers find him to be perpetually loosing himself in his poems, as in Traumgekroent, in order to find himself; to make sense of a world experienced by a sensitive mind. His poems then become questions, to himself, to the world, in themselves being answers. Through them, seemingly, he seeks the sense or the reason to the everyday, the motive, the feeling: life. Each poem then becomes a personal journey, a significant step to identity and understanding. Therefore, a translation, as an endeavour to convey, to share with a broader audience the poet’s work, does not exist as a twin replica to the original, with the only difference being language. The notion that it does, defies the uniqueness of human nature and becomes therefore impossible. The translation takes on an existence as separate literature, being unique to and personal for the translator, his language and the ranges of expression this language offers. It is a product of distinct interpretation of the original, as resulting from his life experiences, contrasting to and different from the poets. Translated work becomes a matter of perception as underpinned by the translators own consciousness. In Rilke’s Der Panther, we find a consciousness of and empathy for life. The animal transcends the common association with a base form of nature, to express emotion and a state of being, as experienced by Rilke and can be seen as an attempt to draw out a truth from nature, to replace the daunting obscurity in self-awareness.


Having grown up in a household, where the father’s failure in military and his consequent wish for Rilke to attain those achievements which had been denied to himself, was juxtaposed with the mother’s grief for and inability to deal with the death of her previously born girl child, resulting in Rilke being raised as a girl, lead to a presumably anguished and confused onset of life. Rilke went through military school labelled as being “different”. His desire for poetry and literature could not be fulfilled in this strict world, based on the physical and the belittling of the abstract aspects of life. One can imagine the conflicting forces in his life, as driving Rilke to an uncertainty of self and a frustration in life. Prague would live on in his memory as a “miserable city of subordinate existence” and was to resound, within his writings to come.

His earliest poems were published in 1894, during a time when he was studying to succeed his uncle as barrister. Early poems were judged to be deeply felt and sentimental, yet lacking in his later day maturity. A prominent attribute of his early poems was the way in which Rilke expressed himself. Leishman, one of his prominent analysts, described it as follows:  “Although very descriptive in nature, such as Larenopfer, where Rilke describes the streets, houses and monuments, the concept of ‘seeing’ is relatively unimportant in his poems. The emotions surfacing when ‘things’ or events are relived are of great significance and work their way into the poems. Objects can be seen as living within him only through his mood, his joy and sorrow of what was felt in each occasion. ‘Things’ had no independent life of their own.” This, as an attribute to his early writings, would change and would in time lead to the panther, in his poem, Der Panther, as taking on a life of its own, of becoming more than a ‘thing’, but a being with consciousness, from which parallels could be drawn to one’s own life.

Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen was a figure in Rilke’s life, whose ideology was to influence him immensely. Jacobsen’s novels and stories, particularly a book about an aspiring poet, Niels Lyhne, who failed to unify his poetry and his life as a result of searching within the ‘ideals’ of society, which deceived him in his quest to find his identity, created in Rilke a strong conviction that truth is only to be found in solitude and in nature. In one of his letters, he expressed that “Even for what is most delicate and inapprehensible within us, nature has sensuous equivalents that must be discoverable”. This inapprehensible ‘thing’, the abstract soul, our essence, is what Rilke likely sought to draw out and discover when he stood in front of the caged panther in the Jardin des Plantes, with the suffering, lifeless and lethargic existence of the French populace at the forefront of his mind.

“The numerous hospitals here, which are everywhere, trouble me…. One feels all of a sudden that in this wide city there are hosts of invalids, armies of dying, nations of dead”. A more gruesome picture could hardly be painted, than the one which Rilke had described to his wife. He saw Paris as a nation of the dead, of people indifferent to life, a place, where he “felt very much alone”. So depressing was Paris that he needed to escape its lethargy on many occasions. He sought an outlet for his emotion, one, which came in the form of The book on poverty and death, which described the horrors he saw in Paris. In one of the poems, he portrays the many wandering souls of the city as circling “solitarily around the hospitals [waiting] anxiously for admission-day”.  Rilke’s apparent need to express and explore his emotions, lead him, upon the suggestion by mentor and friend Auguste Rodin, to Jardin des Plantes, where Rodin advised him to look, simply look at what he saw there. The French artist implored Rilke that he should not force his emotions to drive him to write about a thing as in earlier volumes. The poet, he believed ‘was not merely to see a thing, not merely to describe a thing, but to become a thing, or rather, to create from the thing and from his contemplation of it a third and independent thing, a work of art’.

Paris and its lethargic gloom, childhood and its depressing anxiety, life and its mystifying complexity, likely bound Rilke to the panther he ‘experienced’ in the Jardin des Plantes. Focused on this creature of nature, we could see him acting out the words he had written down in one of his letters, “At bottom one seeks in everything new only an expression that helps some personal confession to greater power and maturity. In fact, all things are there in order that they may in some sort become images of us”.  The panther, arguably, was to become an image of himself and of the people in Paris, who he described as “twitching like pieces of a great hacked fish, already decaying but still alive… Living on nothing”. Within the panther was to be found a truth, one which Rilke tried to express, or expressed, in the poem Der Panther, depending on his original intend, which is perhaps more or less obscured to his analyst.

In the poem, the panther, the Paris populace and Rilke all seem to fuse into that one being, which paces endlessly within the tiniest of circles, held within a world so small as to see its confines with each and every turn. Pride, dignity, freedom are suppressed as much as the will, essence and soul stand paralyzed. Not very often, but sometimes, as if by chance, an image, a hope for a revived emotion, enters through the window that are the eyes, only to disappear like “vapour that vanished away” – Rilke. Parallels are drawn and fuse to become one. The people suffered. They lived within a self constructed prison, the seeing of life as inevitably doomed to despair, that held them in a state of depression and gloom, leading to apathy for life. The panther, so intricately intertwined with the vastness of nature and the freedom of being, was held in a state of paralysis, to live a lifeless life. Rilke, as the searching individual we know him to be from correspondence and self-reflection in journals, who was bound to his troubled past and his poetic nature to express emotions, must have discovered within the panther, arguably, that, which he feared most; confinement, not in physical, but spiritual dimensions, apathy for life, and an inability to express emotion, in his case, through poetry. Empathy for the endlessness of circling within circles must surely have been felt, for which creative mind has not come across a time, where creativity was hampered and all progress seemed to be circling back on itself? Paralyzing dread, helplessness and lethargy, are all linked to the inapprehensible complexity of life, of Rilke’s life and his search, of anybodies search, for an, the identity.

What takes form then, after time spent with contemplation, is, Der Panther. Rilke, the poet, created art and expressed that, which he felt needed to be expressed. As we read Der Panther today, and dive into its world of form and style, we ultimately discover an interplay of words and sounds that create, through symbiosis, an image of that what was seen and presumably felt many years ago.

The first stanza, simply explained, introduces a panther pacing in his cage. This summarization does not, however do it justice. As we read it, we are pulled in and see him, the animal, pacing lethargically within a world of containment, of bars, and feel the strength of despair as that realization takes hold. Rilke’s use of words such as staebe [bars](lines 1, 3 and 4) , gaebe [to be, as in being physically/psychologically present](line 3), haelt [to hold as in holding something abstract](line 2), Welt [world](line 4), slows the pace of the poem down to create a sensation of calm, serenity and an eternal state of being. The reader feels as if wading through water as the words draw the out the sound to force the poem to be experienced in slow motion. Rhythmically smooth and slow, the words underpin the image of the pacing panther. Our conscious, sees or rather, experiences the panther’s slow pacing, the almost dragging motion, within the cage. Within this world of suppression and containment of his once so proud nature, where the inability of his so natural “action” has lead to apathy and its associated “slowness” of action of any kind, we are left with the image of outward calmness and serenity within an unending cycle. This contrasts with the image of a panther in the wild, where he is calm only before the hunt, perpetually active through life, serene only during moments of rest, with serenity broken by hunt and the concept of an eternal environment only expressed by the continuous circle of life, all other life changing and heading for an ultimate end. It is likely, that Rilke saw in the panther, the people of Paris, and in the people of Paris, the panther, as both circled within their prison with apparent serenity while their spirit slowly vanished away to be become barely discernible.

The power of this creation of a melody within the stanza, as supporting the context, can be such that we feel our emotions roused, our empathy stirred and our mind focused on what we see. What we see is vividly created for us. Throughout the stanza, all words used occur merely once, except for staebe (bars), which resounds throughout, creating a symbolic as well as a real world dominated by bars in which a will stands paralyzed. We have now moved on to the second stanza, in which Rilke relies heavily on the words themselves and their associated meanings. He uses the superlative, allerkleinsten, [the smallest](line 6), to create an image of an ‘almost turning on the spot’, of being confined to a space more or less nonexistent in its smallness. Into this so small a space, Rilke introduces the concept of ‘ein Tanz von Kraft’ (line 7), translated as, a powerful dance, that can be characterized as being full of strength and implying a largeness of life and force of character of the dancer. Powerfully juxtaposed are the concepts of life, will and spirit with apathy, suppression and emptiness. This leads us directly to what has to be the only consequence in placing a free, very much alive spirit, into the ‘allerkleinsten’ space. The will becomes paralyzed.

The third and last stanza of the poem takes on a different rhythm as the previous two, both in flow of words as well as in ideas. Where the first two had a repeating pattern of 11 and 10 syllables and lines smoothly flowed into one another, the third stanza stops the reader in his tracks, in the midst of reading, and breaks the syllabic pattern in the last line, to highlight its significance. Hope appears in the first line of stanza three. As the pupil slowly opens, a picture enters through the eyes, being on its way to the soul and the possible reception therein. Rilke uses the word ‘schiebt’ (line 9) which means to push, when he refers to the opening of the pupil. We see a might effort by the panther, to reclaim part of what was his, the ability to conceive, only to be denied this in the end, as the image taken in, fades and dies in the heart. This is communicated to us in what can be compared to a tricolon crescendo. The three sentences in the stanza are separated by dashes. They do not flow into one another. After each sentence, the reader is forced to stop and to allow time for what he has just read to resound in his mind. It is thus, that we experience this tricolon crescendo: The struggle to regain, the image taken in and the image fading in the heart. This creates intensity, and a build up of feeling, to an unfortunate yet powerfully described end: An eight syllable destruction of hope.

In translations of Der Panther, such as created by Stephen Mitchell and J.B. Leishman, the discrepancy that is produced by a difference in language and its corresponding dissimilar sound patterns as relating to words, prevents this symbiosis of sound, prose and content as was intended by the original poet, Rilke. As of necessity, the translations, therefore, take on the form of distinct works of art that take the panther from the original poem, and place him in a similar, yet linguistically unique content as underpinned by each poets own life history.

The first stanza in J. B. Leishman’s translation has an abab rhyme pattern, a predominantly iambic meter and uses words that, as in the original version, draw out the sound. The rhyme pattern abab is used to give rise to a cyclic system, which, associated with circles that, having no beginning and no end, therefore being symbols of eternity, emphasize the panther’s circular pacing within his eternal condition. The iambic meter, also of circular nature due to its repetitive syllable use, strengthens this idea, while creating a sombre mood as a result of the sound patterns derived from its reading. Leishman uses spondees, in line two and four, stressing ‘nothing more’ (line 2) and ‘no more world’ (line 4), simultaneously emphasising this aspect of having nothing, as well as slowing the rhythm of the poem down significantly. The reoccurring ‘o’ sounds within the words, further contribute to this effect, as well as ‘rounding’ or smoothing the sound that is heard. This achieves as Rilke’s poem did, the placing of the panther in a world where endlessness and nothingness go by in slow motion.  A difference to note, however, is that in the first stanza, Leishman chose to use the word ‘cages’ as being repeated, where Rilke had chosen ‘bars’. The effect is somewhat ambiguous, as the passing of bars creates an effect whereupon all that seems to exist are bars, and not, as Leishman has put it, cages. Nonetheless, the repetition of cages in the stanza, invokes a world of imprisonment.

We find that Leishman’s use in stanza 2 of the word ‘strong’, to describe the panther’s gait, as well as his use of the phrase ‘dance of force’ (line 7), creates an image very like the one Rilke raised, namely that of physical strength and spiritual largeness forced to exist within the ‘tiniest circles’ (Leishman line 6), resulting in the inevitable: a will standing stupefied, or as Leisman puts it ‘is like a dance of force about a basis/on which a mightly will stands stupefied’ (line 7,8). The use of the word stupefied, again is somewhat ambiguous due to its association with confusion, bewilderment and amazement, as well as with the root word stupid, invoking unintelligence or dimness of thought. Arguably, a mind, captured within a suffering eternity, will no longer be confused, bewildered or amazed, as it might have been, when originally introduced to such a state, but would have become paralyzed or numb. One can imagine that Leishman used the word stupefied as he did, so as to continue the rhyme pattern with line 6, which would have been broken if the more appropriate word paralyzed or numbed would have been used.

Throughout the translation, Leishman has followed the original 11/10 syllable pattern, which he breaks in the last line of stanza three. This shows its importance in the poem as offering the final verdict. Hope is nonexistent. It ceases to be. This is communicated to us, after the re-emergence of hope in the beginning of stanza three. In his translation, Leishman does not use the tricolon crescendo, but draws the reader along to witness this image, this hope entering the panther, progressing to the heart with a climactic intensity. He holds the reader at that climax and abruptly ends it in disappointment. Here, he has used only one dash to separate the climax with the 8 syllable final verdict.

A somewhat different approach can be found in Stephen Mitchell’s work. He does not follow the 11/10 syllable, nor the abab, rhyme pattern.  Yet he nevertheless achieves to create a sense of eternity, writing, ‘as he paces in cramped circles, over and over’ (line5). Over and over has the same effect as the spondee in Leishman’s version, drawing attention to, this time, the concept of infinitude, as well as acting to slow the poem down. Further, Mitchell is more true to Rilke’s version, in using ‘bars’ as repeated words in the first stanza, creating the powerful image of bars being the entirety of perceived vision. In stanza two he gives the panther ‘powerful strides’ that are at the same time ‘soft’, relating perhaps to the panther’s original nature of elegance. The result is the same. Powerful strides, a ritual dance, bursting with life, all contained in ‘cramped circles’ (line 5), invoking claustrophobia, a powerful sensation of helplessness that, if endured for too long, will ultimately result in a paralysis of mind. Mitchell used the word paralyzed, which Leishman chose not to, therefore removing all ambiguity of meaning. The mind is not confused, or amazed, it is paralyzed, motionless or frozen. Stanza three uses yet a different approach to the use of dashes. Mitchell’s choice to place it after the first sentence, thus separating it from the remaining lines forces the reader to pause, to reflect on what he has just read, and realize the importance of it: the potential for hope has been introduced in the line. Mitchell then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour towards the fated end, using words such as ‘rushes’, ‘tensed’, ‘arrested’ and ‘plunges’, all which seem to be rushing the reader along, evoking a tense atmosphere, an almost violent struggle as the image rushes to the heart. It is interesting to note, that Mitchell chose to use ‘plunge’ as his word of choice for describing how the image enters the heart. For both Leishman and Rilke, the image and the associated hope merely dissipates, vanishes or ceases to exist once it reaches the heart. Mitchell has the image plunging into the heart, which creates a sense that the image had been through a fast-paced journey, as it ‘rushed down through the [bodies] tensed arrested muscles’ (line 11) to the heart. A need for urgency is therefore created, as if it was of vital necessity that the image reaches the heart as fast as possible, due to the probable fear of its imminent disappearance. The last line, ‘plunges into the heart and is gone’ is somewhat vague. In general, we associate the plunging of objects with falling into a source of water, such as a pond, or a lake, rather large bodies. It is then fair to ask, if the image that was taken in and frantically rushed to the heart merely ceased to be, or if it simply was usurped and lost within the largeness of the heart. The word ‘gone’ (line 12) then becomes a matter of varying interpretation. Does the author refer to gone as in to cease to exist, or as in lost within a vastness, gone then merely due to it not being found? Does Mitchell’s panther still have the ability to store images in his heart, yet is unable to reflect upon these, as they are too insignificant for his large heart, which used to images of much greater design, such as the one of freedom , is not roused to feeling? Regardless of how one interprets it, the result is inevitably the same. Hope becomes but an unreachable notion for the panther, and as Rilke would likely have put it, for the people of Paris.

As a work of literature, Der Panther has reached a global audience, with various translations in many different languages. The way the poem is received by individual readers becomes a product of and is proportional to their own life history and the resulting impregnated emotions within their character. The original poem, as was written by Rilke, who was presumably largely influenced by his time in Paris and the events there, that shook him so deeply, is expressed in a way unique predominantly to the poets language and is furthermore personalized through Rilke’s distinct desire to express to and share with the general audience his innermost thoughts. The style he chose to use, the particular arrangement of sounds, the selected words, each with its own repertoire of meaning, all reflect who he is as an individual and what he is willing to reveal about himself and life as he sees it. Translators such as Leishman and Mitchell are creating bridges over the barrier in language. They, as was seen in translated work, approach this ‘bridge building’ in diverse ways, underpinned by each individuals own consciousness and the emotions evoked in each as the original poem is read. For this reason, Mitchell, might have used the line ‘plunges into the heart and is gone’ whilst Leishman wrote ‘and ceases for ever in the heart’, due to a difference in perception. One can argue about which version might be ‘truer’ or ‘superior’ or ‘more poetic’ than the other, but what stands firmly and is immune to argument is the fact that each exists as its own form of art. A conclusion that can be drawn from this, is that in fact, ‘all things are there in order that they may in some sort become images of us’-Rilke. This realization presupposes that as we readers plunge into the heart of the art that is poetry, we lose ourselves in translation; a translation that seeks and draws out, that which the reader’s unique consciousness is able and willing to see.


3 thoughts on “Rainer Maria Rilke’s Der Panther – The fusion of world and self within poetry and the idea of being lost in translation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s