“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.
Rilke’s association with Rodin, as well as the painter Paul Cézanne, led him to develop what the poet called Dinggedichte, or “thing poems.” Rilke considered “The Panther,” an early example of this type, one of his favorite poems, because it had shown him “the way to artistic integrity.”
Rilke strove to make his poems self-contained and compact with meaning, like works of visual art. Like a painter or sculptor, Rilke crafted concrete forms and perspective by means of what Mandel terms “the illusion of movement.” The panther’s concentric pacing gives it volume and dimension, as well as animating the poem with tension and balance and ultimately drawing the reader inward. Contrast (“soft pace” and “supple massive stride”) and repetition (“pace,” “stride,” “dance”) create patterns of motion, which, like ocean waves, produce a visual surface. It is this surface that reflects the poet’s inner mood, as waves mirror the tide.
According to the poet W. H. Auden, Rilke was “almost the first poet since the seventeenth century to find a fresh solution” to the problem of “how to express abstract ideas in concrete terms.” Auden wrote that Rilke thought with “physical” symbols, that he imagined the human “in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge).” The panther’s repetitive motion and mechanical, cameralike registering of images emphasize his “thingness.” Rilke reinforces the poem’s effect of concreteness with his choice of plain, simple vocabulary. He rejects erudite and florid language in favor of unassuming speech. Complexity is achieved by the poem’s imagery.
To ensure concentration of thought and feeling, Rilke develops the image of the caged panther into an extended metaphor. This device also produces the symmetry and self-sufficiency of visual art. Much of the richness attributed to Rilke’s poetry derives from the coherence of his imagery. In addition, critics have commented on how Rilke’s interplay of meter and rhyme create a subtle music, whose rhythm and internal balance help draw the reader into the poem’s self-contained world.