The Panther


From so much eyeing of these bars
The panther’s gone cage-blind
So that it sees a thousand bars,
And not the world behind.

Lithely padding, circling
In movement without cease
It coils its body like a spring
That cannot find release.

And sometimes on its eye within,
The silent pictures start–
That rush through sinew, nerve and skin,
But vanish at the heart.


Rilke drew me in again; I’m not quite sure why. His lyricism? His romanticism? This particular poem’s fusion of imagism and philosophizing that, though it stops well short of banality, is certainly situated somewhere along the obviousness spectrum? Likely enough it was over-exposure to the slavish word-bound accuracy of over-respectful translators who run roughshod over sense and sensibility to turn–for example–this:

Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält. (Ranier Maria Rilke)

into this:

From seeing the bars, his seeing is so exhausted
that it no longer holds anything anymore. (Robert Bly)

or this:

His gaze has been so worn by the procession
Of bars that it no longer makes a bond. (Walter Arndt)

or even this:

His gaze those bars keep passing is so misted
with tiredness, it can take in nothing more.
( J. B. Leishman)

The Panther is a great poem, and Rilke a great poet (as we would know even if had he not told us so himself), but does that mean we shouldn’t render his verses into plausible English? The learned Übersetzeren do little better than an automatic translation program:

His gaze is by passing the bars
become so tired, that he has nothing
. (Bing Translator)

… though actually, now I’m up against it, I have to say that’s not even true: I prefer Microsoft’s version here to any of the professionals’: better a tired gaze than one misted with tiredness; a panther may have nothing, and that is sad, but it also makes sense, unlike a panther whose seeing holds nothing anymore. And frankly I have not the faintest notion what sort of a bond even an un-worn gaze would be expected to make.

And yes, I am aware that Emily Dickinson’s lawyers are probably looking for me after this one.

Here is Rilke’s original:

Der Panther

Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf—. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

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