“The Panther” is the oldest poem in Rilke’s first volume of the two-volume Neue Gedichte (1907, 1908; New Poems, 1964). The poem deals with a panther who paces endlessly in its cramped cage in the zoo. Its physical appearance is that of a free beast, but its spirit and instincts have been dulled by long captivity. This poem is placed between several others that reflect and illuminate it by their similar subject matter. Preceding it is the two-part sequence titled “Der Gerfangene” (“The Prisoner”). There, the thoughts of a man in prison are punctuated by the numbing, repetitious drip of water in his cell. In the second of the two sequences, the prisoner tries to portray, for someone on the outside, the madness and horror of his life. Placed immediately after the panther poem is one called “Die Gazelle” (“The Gazelle”). This poem also portrays an animal in a zoo. Instead of being dulled by captivity, however, the gazelle is raised to an image of lightness, self-containment, and beauty.
Placed between these poems, “The Panther” represents a particular reaction to imprisonment. Although a portrayal of one particular animal, the poem also becomes a portrayal of all captive creatures—the poet included.
One of Rilke’s best-known and most widely discussed poems, the work is a masterpiece of suggestion and indirection. While a cage is never mentioned, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that one exists. It seems to the panther...
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