“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 that the bars are “passing back and forth,” until they have become a dynamic and absolute reality. Nor is the panther itself ever mentioned again once the title has introduced the animal. The sound, rhythm, and tactile quality of the cat’s pacing are presented through both the meaning and the sound of the words of the second stanza.
In the first two lines, the panther’s movement is characterized as “a dance of strength”; it is both graceful and powerful. Yet this harnessed power has been short-circuited and circles endlessly on itself, devoid of purpose. The “great will” of the cat does not move with its body, which seems animated by some automatic, mechanical force; instead, it “stands numbed” at the center of the circle, incapable of decision.
In the final stanza, there is a moment when it seems to the onlooker that the animal’s integrity has not been totally destroyed: when its eyes receive a message from beyond the bars. The image passes through the body, which has ceased its endless circling and seems to await a command. Yet when the image reaches the animal’s heart, it disappears without a trace, leaving the cat to pursue its pacing in the void and leaving the reader to feel sadness at the waste.
In its form, the poem reflects the content. Like the activity of the panther, the poem is circular, although this fact is not evident in the translation. In the original, the first word, sein (his), and the last, sein (to be), are homophones. The poet has brought the reader back to where he began, just as the panther always must return to the same spot. In addition, lines 6 and 7, describing the small, tight circle of the “dance of strength around a center,” fall at the precise center of the poem. Finally, Rilke uses fairly regular iambic feet, with alternating feminine and masculine rhyme, so that a swinging, sinuous rhythm is produced. The last line, in which the image ceases to exist in the heart of the cat, is, however, short by a foot. The abruptness of this line echoes that of the extinction of the image and closes the door on any possibility of renewal.