Jardin des Plantes
The poem “Der Panther“ by Rainer Maria Rilke refers to a panther that Rilke met in Jardin des Plantes, a botanic garden in the southeast of Paris. The garden has existed since 1626 and is the oldest part of the public science department of research and education Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. In the course of the French Revolution all exotic animals were delivered to the natural scientists of Jardin de Plantes for slaughtering and stuffing in 1793. However, the scientists let the animals live and established the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, which is the oldest still existing zoological garden.
Inhaltsangabe, Analyse und Interpretation
The subject of “Der Panther”, which was written in 1903, is a captured panther and his life in a cage. The poem consists of three stanzas, each forming a sentence that runs over four lines.
The first stanza describes the wearied glance of the animal, which cannot perceive anything due to the bars surrounding it. Its life only happens within the cage.
In the second stanza the narrator names attributes of the animal: it has a smooth walk full of energy. However, due to its captivity it only moves in circles and its willpower seems to be numb.
The third stanza describes the perception of the animal. Occasionally, it perceives something, nevertheless, most of the time the perceiving images do not show any effect as it is not able to react on anything anymore.
To sum up, firstly, the glance of the animal is described, secondly, its walk and finally its inner feelings. From an external view the panther seems to be what it was once, when looking closer at his inner feelings, however, it is not alive anymore.
Style of the poem: “Der Panther” is a Dinggedicht1 – a type of poem that is typical for the second half of the 19th century. It describes an object or a living being by pretending that the object/living being speaks about it-/himself. The narrator stays in the background, only describing the subject of the poem. Also in “Der Panther” we can find these features. While the first two stanzas might be written by a spectator, the third stanza focuses on the animal’s inner feelings which cannot even be seen by an outside observer. By means of this type of poem it is possible to depict both, the appearance as well as the inner feelings of the panther.
The poem is made of iambic pentametres except of the final line which is written in iambic tetrametres. This metre puts emphasis on the lost perception of the panther: both the rhythm as well as the sensory impression of the animal has gone out.
Interesting to mention is the fact that the noun “Panther” only appears in the title of the poem. In the course of the poem, however, only pronouns and descriptions of the animal are used: “sein Blick” (line 1), “ihm ist” (line 3).
In the first stanza the word “Stäbe” (line 1,4,5) is repeated three times. An ‘ä’-assonance2 to the word ‘Stäbe’ can be found as well: “hält” (line 2), “gäbe “(line 3). Due to these two stylistic devices the text has to be read in slower pace. This underlines the monotony of the animal’s captivity.
Another rhetorical device that is used are personifications3. In the first line “Stäbe” are personified: “Vorübergehn der Stäbe”. Actually, these movements are caused by the walking of the panther. By using this personification, the passivity of the animal is stressed. It is also a hint to the animal’s dependence on its environment: it has to rely on being fed, for instance. As it is determined by the outside world, it seems as if the bars are moving instead of him.
Also the glance of the panther is personified: “so müde geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält” (line 2). The adverb “müde” (tired) stresses that the animal must have lived under this circumstances for a long time. The expression “dass er nichts mehr hält” (line 2) is also an allusion to the following third stanza.
In the fifth line an alliteration4 can be found: „Gang“, „geschmeidig“. The adjective “geschmeidig” creates the image of a graceful animal intensifying the contrast between freedom and captivity. The superlative “im allerkleinsten Kreise “(line 7) stresses this contrast, too.
The comparison “wie ein Tanz von Kraft” (line 7) creates the image of a powerful and strong panther. “Tanz” symbolises high spirits emphasising the potential hidden powers of the animal. The paradox5 “betäubt ein großer Wille” (line 8), too, is a symbol for the oppression of the panther’s spirit.
The metaphor6 „der Vorhang der Pupille“ (line 9) stands for the lacking consciousness in captivity. Through the animal’s eyes the visual impressions are perceived. Eyes are of great significance in European culture. When humans trust and respect each other, they show this by having eye contact. In German the eyes are also called ‘Fenster der Seele’ (window of the soul/spirit). Here, however, they are covered by a curtain. This curtain hinders others to look behind the matter and it prevents the eye, too, to look outside on what is on the other side of the curtain. Hence, this metaphor implies that the person looking at the panther cannot see the animal’s inner feelings. Likewise, the panther cannot perceive anything of the outer world.
In line 10 one can find another personification: “Dann geht ein Bild hinein”. As the personification previously mentioned, this one as well underlines the panther’s passivity. Things around it happen but it cannot influence any of them.
Worth mentioning is the metaphor “Herz” in line 12 representing the living being that stops ‘to be’. As its inner feelings cannot be approached, the things happening around it do not cause any reaction in him. Hence, the panther has no more contact to the outer world. The panther is captured inside the cage as is its glance captured inside the animal’s body. It can be said that the panther does not exist anymore.
Finally, the motion of the panther needs to be analysed. Interesting to notice is that the animal still has its smooth walk (“weicher Gang” line 5). These movements create the image of a still undamaged animal, leaving the option of escape. It seems that the panther has not given up yet. The final line, however, implies that the animal has already given up. The contrast between the previous lines and the final one seems tremendous.
To summarise, the poem “Der Panther“ by Rainer Maria Rilke depicts the status of captivity in an impressive way by describing first the animal’s appearance and then its inner feelings. An important function of the ‘Dinggedichte’ is the possible comparison to other situations such as slavery or human being’s captivity. The latter one, however, does not mainly refer to being imprisoned but, especially, to daily compulsions that are mainly imposed by society or by oneself (household, profession). Flight seems to be impossible, at least not by one’s own. One can see the poem also as a plea for not surrendering oneself by these compulsions, emotional void could be a consequence.