Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed that his own work had been an attempt to articulate in philosophical language what Rilke had confronted symbolically in his poems. Heidegger’s existentialist philosophy defined the human condition as “being exposed to nothingness.” “Rilke’s captive Panther,” states critic Erich Heller, is a “Zoological relation of [Vincent] Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, those rapacious ‘things’ that draw the whole world into their dark centers.” Rilke wrote about nothingness in a strangely compelling, almost erotic way. The panther he evokes as a symbol of deadening loss attracts the reader with a horrifying magnetism.

Rilke, like William Blake, rarely lapsed into sentimentality about nature’s primal chaos. At the same time, he yielded to its mysteries, unflinchingly following to their heart of darkness. In such sympathetic contemplation, he discovered a transcendence achieved through the imagination, which enabled him to overcome his despair at the spiritual bankruptcy modern life afforded him. For Rilke, the intensity of poetic vision provided him entry into the realm of the spiritual and the eternal.

Rilke’s poetry reveals a man sensitive to the dualities of existence, creatively seeking to unify experience. Critics have noted in his work the complementary themes of lament and praise. In “The Panther,” for example, even as he grieves over the animal’s captivity, Rilke extols the power and elegance of its gait.

The poet presents the caged panther as a figure of tragedy, invoking terror and pity. Trapped by the exigencies of time and space and matter, it is emblematic of the terror of contingency. The captive animal attains transcendence, paradoxically, once it is captured in the poem, an eternally existing object of the poet’s imagination.