Rainer Maria Rilke

The Panther

Added 10 August 1999
Revised 1 October 2006

A number of years ago, I put Rilke's "The Panther" on my web site. Since then, I have received a number of e-mails berating the translation I use and suggesting another. I have read each of those translations, and still prefer the one I originally posted. I have decided, however, to post alternate translations of the poem so that others can decide for themselves which is the best. My favorite translation, as well as the interpretations of the poem by myself and others are on this page. Since creating this page, I have had many people submit alternate translations to me. It seems that there is quite a cottage industry in translating this poem! I've gotten so many (16 as if October 2006!), that I had to create a separate page for all of them. For alternate translations, go to myPanther Translations Page Make sure you come back though!

In 1905 Rilke moved to Meudon, France to take a job as the secretary of Rodin. When Rilke told Rodin that he had not been writing lately, Rodin's advice was to go to the zoo (the Jardin des Plantes) and look at an animal until he truly saw it. Here is the result (as translated by Robert Bly):

Translated by Robert Bly


1. From seeing the bars, his seeing is so exhausted
2. that it no longer holds anything anymore.
3. To him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
4. bars, and behind the bars, nothing.

5. The lithe swinging of that rhythmical easy stride
6. which circles down to the tiniest hub
7. is like a dance of energy around a point
8. in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

9. Only at times the curtains of the pupil rise
10. without a sound . . . then a shape enters,
11. slips though the tightened silence of the shoulders,
12. reaches the heart, and dies.


In lines 1 and 2, Rilke is commenting on the hopelessness of imprisonment. The prisoner is numb from seeing the same thing every day. The panther can have nothing outside its cage, so what is the point in seeing any further than the bars of the cage itself?
Lines 5 and 6 represent Beauty, or more specifically, the beauty of nature and the natural world.
Lines 7 and 8 reveal Beauty bound by men, and the power that is subdued in the process.
In lines 9 and 10, hope enters the panthers eyes. Something powerful comes into play within the panther. It is the panthers own power, the power of Nature, returned.
Then in lines 11 and 12, that power is overcome by the desperation of being on the wrong side of the bars.

Discussing the figurative language of the poem is somewhat problematic because the poem is translated, and each translation uses different figurative language. Much the same holds true for the sound devices and imagery. Discussing the imagery is slightly easier though. In all translations there is similar strong imagery regarding the movements of the panther. First, Rilke talks about the panther in it's entirety . . . how it moves, how it acts, how it thinks. He paints a bleak picture then breaks the panther down into parts (the hubs of its joints, its eyes, etc). In essense, the imagery of the poem deconstructs the panther to symbolize how the panther is taken apart by being caged. At the end of this deconstruction, the panther symbolically "dies."

Klaus J. Peter found this site and shared with me not only his own translation of The Panther (which is on the other translations page), but also this wonderful sketch inspired by The Panther, reproduced here with his kind permission. Thanks Klaus!

The Panther, by Klaus J. Peter.

Care to add your own comments/interpretation? Then please tell me what you think and I will add your ideas here for others to read. Please explicitly state your desire/permission for me to add your comments to this page in your e-mail.

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