Der Panther – A Poem about Wild Animals in Captivity

When I was in grade school in German class, my teacher had us memorize poems. One of the poems I can still recite flawlessly today. It is “Der Panther/The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke, written in 1902, and it goes like this:

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn 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.

Poetry, as always, is exceptionally difficult to translate, if not impossible. Here I found a surprisingly good translation, credit Wikipedia, that provides the content. It does not have the powerful and profound impact of the original German, not by a long shot, but it gives you an idea of the message:

His gaze against the sweeping of the bars
has grown so weary, it can hold no more.
To him, there seem to be a thousand bars
and back behind those thousand bars no world.

The soft the supple step and sturdy pace,
that in the smallest of all circles turns,
moves like a dance of strength around a core
in which a mighty will is standing stunned.

Only at times the pupil’s curtain slides
up soundlessly — . An image enters then,
goes through the tensioned stillness of the limbs —
and in the heart ceases to be.

Here is a website that shows the original and several different translations by different authors, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I am apparently not the only person who loves this poem and has tried to convey its essence to English speakers.

3 thoughts on “Der Panther – A Poem about Wild Animals in Captivity

  1. Reblogged this on Norbert Haupt and commented:

    Thinking of translations from German has reminded me of The Panther – so I repost it here. I find it phenomenally difficult to translate a poem to another language. It’s a unique art form that way – very culture bound, unlike literature, music and visual arts.

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