“The Panther” is a brief poem of twelve lines divided into three quatrains, each following the rhyme scheme abab. The title indicates the object of the poet’s meditations.
From 1905 to 1906, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke worked as secretary to the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. After studying a small bronze of a tiger sculpted by Rodin, Rilke visited the Jardin des Plantes in Paris to observe a captive panther. Conventionally, a panther suggests feral violence; however, the poem overturns such expectations. The reader’s experience of the predatory creature climaxes in what critic Siegfried Mandel calls “the psychological terror of absolute inward stillness.”
The first quatrain describes the captive animal’s vision as having grown weary, so that all he perceives are blurs, or things without definition or significance. Such deterioration is a symptom of the animal’s imprisonment. The bars that surround him multiply in his sight to a thousand; he can only glimpse fragmentary images of what lies beyond. His universe is thus rendered monotonous and meaningless.
The second quatrain reinforces this sense of futility by conveying the circularity of the panther’s movement. His incessant pacing also suggests that the imprisoned animal harbors reserves of force and rebellion. The intensity of this contained energy is implied by the suppleness and massiveness of the animal’s tread. The image the poet creates is of a coiled wire; the creature’s awesome stride is restricted to a circle whose size and scope is “miniature.” The focus on this “dance of strength” shifts at the quatrain’s end to the circle’s immobile center, the site of a “powerful” yet “benumbed” will.
The panther’s vision also dominates the third quatrain, though this time the reader observes not from the outside but from the inside. The immobility that closes the previous quatrain extends now to the animal’s “tense, quiet limbs” and climaxes with the death of the image that slips through his randomly open eyes. This image searches out the heart, or the center, where it is annihilated. The imprisoned consciousness has lost its power or will to grasp the reality beyond it.