Rainer Maria Rilke

The Panther

Added 10 August 1999
Revised 20 February 2012

Many people have written to me with their interpretations of "The Panther." Most of those interpretations are presented here. What I find interesting is that each one has been completely different. I believe that to be a true testament to the personal power of the poem.


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.


Interpretation by Amy Grime:

I imagine this is not a new interpretation, but this poem was suggested as a reading in my gifted and talented education course. With the implied interpretation, that bright children in school are like the panther in her cage, and get dulled into not really expressing or being what their potential implies. I suppose this is just another example of circumstance that can bring about the experience of the panther.

Interpretation by Francois Vandame:

I am not fluent in German and so am unable to gauge the accuracy of the translations provided, but as far as interpretations go, I think that the character of the panther ought to be read as a metaphor which brings together the mind set/perspective of Rilke and the present reader's view point, whilst also acting as an allegory of the state of mind of one who is lost in thought, and baffled by the beauty of the system of words, and more generally the systems of facts which Poincarre equates to the ideas of beauty and utility of beauty (Science and Method, 1904). In line one the recurring choice of the bar in all the translations is significant because while on the one hand reflective of the imagery associated with an animal cage, the concept of bars markedly echoes the type font of the older style of German typeface in which the poem would have been originally published. If bars can be interpreted as being letters, words, or phrases than is it not possible that there is an alternative imagery that Rilke is trying to draw out of the panther? If letters can be viewed as bars, what are words (meta-letters), and phrases (meta-words), but cages? The 'him' in line 3 could be seen as being the panther (which is only directly alluded to in the title) but in fact remains an ambiguous antecedent, which could also refer to the author or reader of a work of poetry. After all, to a person who reads and/or writes the world is ruled by words or bars: "the world is bars, a hundred thousand bars". And if such a person is lost in thought than it would makes sense that, in line 4, it is stated that behind the bars there is 'nothing'. In the second stanza the pace and feelings of excitement intensify; the imagery chosen by Rilke may represent marvel at the beauty of the natural world, but this optimism (which could possibly be read as an intimation that the 'writer's block of the 'panther' in the first stanza is near the beginning of the end) is distinctly reflected in the nimble word/imagery choices in lines five and six. This possibility is however squashed in line 8, when swirling thought surrounding a word or an idea ('point'?) stuns and numbs the 'great will' of the panher, which is perhaps now intended to anthropomorphically capture the state of mind of a defenseless and impotent poet or reader, or even that Rilke himself. Following through to the third stanza, which in many regards acts as a denoument to the plot/word/imagery progression of stanzas 1 + 2, in which an inability to make sense of 'shape[s]' which puzzle and vex (line 10) (perhaps reflective of Lessing's writing on spatial/temporal limitations of the arts of poetry and painting, and perhaps also related to the feeling which comes with the recognition that it is not possible to pinpoint or reason with the initial 'spark' which Kant writes of in his Critique of Judgement of 1790, boils down to a a direct comment on the limitations of language which would later be fleshed out by Wittgenstein his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

here are two quotes by rilke which I feel are relevant to what I was writing about -
"The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things"
."Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave."

Interpretation by Fallingcat:

A friend told me these opening lines (Sein Blick hinter der Stäbe... / His glance from behind the bars...), but, frustratingly, not whose translation it was. He pointed out that ‘Blick’ has a double meaning in German - glance/ view – so the same word refers to the blank look in his eye and his image of the bars.

I’m sure others have thought of this but I’m fairly new to Rilke and haven’t read it anywhere yet. I see the bars as ambiguous (and it’s ambiguity that makes good poetry so powerful and moving), both real and as a metaphor for the barriers we erect to hide our vulnerability or defend our egos. As explored in Rilke’s “First a childhood….”

And sustaining such psychic defences is exhausting and makes us tired like the panther.

Interpretation by Roofs:

I am writing in a late response over the Rilke's Panther translations.

I red the comments, but it seams that lots of them are forgetting some philosophical relations within the poem.

Rilke relates the ritual dance around a center in which a mighty will stands paralyzed[mitchell] to atom structure obviously but in the same time there's Schopenhauer's Will and Nietzscheian force and its affirmation in Will. Damn right, it's about forces of "nature" but in the cosmic sense, powers that constitute Life. Nietzsche was studding physics in belief that this force can be deducted from science.

As well the ending bit und hoert im Herzen auf zu sein is ralatin to Sein which is a very meaningful word in german. It's Heidegger's Da Sein -
existance, Is.
it stops to be
it stops to exist
is no more

it's probably the most moving and striking poem I've ever read, thanks for blogging the translations.

Interpretation by Robert Baker: I agree with you that the translation you prefer is the most accessible, but I would judge Mitchell's translation to be the most accurate, when I compare it to the original German (I have very limited high school German, so that is not saying much).

For instance, the German uses the phrase, "tausend Stabe" for the thousand bars, not "a hundred thousand bars" as you [?] have translated. But I must confess, the impact of increasing the number is true to the spirit of the poem, which gives the sense of countless bars, holding the power of the panther at bay. I also like the phrase "circles down" but Odom's "turns in on itself in ever-smaller circles" reveals a glimpse of the spiritual process in a more dramatic way.

But the over all impact of your translation is clear and straight forward and I tend to like it, on the whole, better than the others.

If I may be so conceited as to suggest some interpretive ideas, it seems to me the poem speaks to the artist's often frustrated struggle to get through to the inner (spiritual) world.This condition of immobilized potency is very strongly imaged in the caged panther. In the same spirit, Rilke cautions the young poet in letter one of his "Letters to a Young Poet", "You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now...there is only one single way. Go into yourself" (translation by M.D. Herter Norton).

The going inward, the panther's pace of ever-smaller circles into a powerful center is a dance of strength, although there is still immobilization, a great power stunned. Stunned from what? From life long sickness, as Rilke struggled with, or the unfortunate stint in a military academy, not a fitting environment for such a sensitive soul. But every artist undoubtedly feels the grand inspiration just beyond grasp, or the inability to express it in a way which still preserves the original spirit.

But in the midst of that unrealized power, an image enters the heart, a connection is made. The blindness has been momentarily lifted. So, too, the jewel of inspiration touches the artist and reaches the center (the heart). But sadly, it is gone quickly. The artist is condemned to express only the reverberation of this tiny spark of life like an eulogy at a funeral -- an indirect reflection of something real and strong and meaningful. It is interesting that Rilke touches on this theme in the continued advice to the young poet in that first letter: "And even if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses -- would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories?"

There is pronounced sadness and loss in this poem, but also at least the promise of redemption. Rilke apparently considered his expression of art as a necessity of survival, without which he would not have life (paraphrased from the same letter). To be denied that action, as apparently he was when he asked Rodin for the advice on how to write again, must have been torture and imprisonment indeed.

But beyond the biography, there is the myth of the waste land, parched from the loss of the Holy Grail, and there is in us the continual tendency to suppress our deepest instinctual selves in favor of living in a civilized and acceptable manner, a condition which C.G. Jung believed was the basis for neurosis, the splitting of our temporal ego from our deep and sacred Self. We are in this sense all pacing panthers, relieved only occasionally by the spark of recognition of what we could be.

Interpretation by Michael (aka Woeisme): "I heard a fragment of The Panther once and always enter it's title when I cross a new search engine and without success when finally here I find *three* translations! Thank you for their inclusion.

Of the translations you have supplied I agree it is this one (though I don't see the translator's name) that conjures within me a sense of the panther's "true" caged nature by the chord it strikes in me. I think it is in part the ambiguities, like in a psychic's reading, that leaves us open for a moment to find in ourselves a connection to it personally rather than simply compiling it.

(Lines 1-2)I read this with a bit of complicated deduction. That the panther had been so focused on the obstacle of bars that they were all he saw and since they were all he saw he no longer sees them as an obstacle because he sees nothing beyond them and since they are no longer an obstacle he no longer sees them at all. So then "it" isn't just his sight that "no longer holds anything anymore" but the *bars* no longer hold the panther because they are accepted and no longer an obstacle.

Line 3 and 4 support my contention. Also a cage with no outside "behind the bars, nothing" so no reference points, to a circling, pacing panther has no start or no end, just an endless "hundred thousand bars". I wonder too if behind the bars could mean not only outside the cage ("behind" from the panther's perspective) but within as well and that a panther no longer free is no longer a panther and instead is "nothing".

Line 5 describes the nature of the panther bottled, evident in it's grace and power demonstrated in a mere gait with line 6 saying it exists even when restricted to prowling the small enclosure of the cage. Line 7 speaks of caged power and Line 8 eludes to this bottled state as well as to the panther's being "nothing".

(Of lines 9-12)That occasionally something catches the panther's attention outside the cage, where "curtains" may represent ignorance but the realization is fleeting because the panther is nothing if not free.

Interpretation by Anonymous: This peice not only makes one feel what it is for the panther, but in my opinion, makes one feel ones own personal situation in the frabricated, contrived, steril so called gracious and polite world of the fake constructed social reality we all live in with one another.

Same, thing, we are all chained and closed in behind the bars of social collective agreed upon self conditioning, stripped clean of the wild and free spirit that roams in innocents. This panther is each and every single one of us individually.

This is why for some, when read, the tears and depth of feeling are not only for caged animals, but for the agreed upon consensus that has resulted in our own imprisonment. And we know longer can do nothing about it. The bars have been sealed and fixed in concrete, we have nothing left but to write or express from a distents in words these personal observations, and no one and nothing is really truely 'lived' anymore. Like the panther ,what desires to live and run free ,has been setup, controlled to observe only,and fixed into the bars of a closed world to the beauty of what could be for us, let alone all animals today.

The integrity of animals would not, nor even could ever, conceive of placing humans in a cage, no matter how it is condoned or given good reason for them or us. Human beings are simply stupid! and as jesus once said in his last words, forgive them for they know not what they do, then, at that time, it was true.

Today this is not true, humans know exactly what they are doing and are up to, but there stupidity has become a polite shared consensus as the most intelligent animal. Rilke, and some others expose in the most incredible way, the horror of what humans perpatrate in the name of productivity, advancement and good for their survival as well as animals. We live in very dark times, the human animal is dispicable, and the frown that appears upon ones brow while reading this here is proof of this.

Interpretation by Jack Keelan: I do not think this poem is about any specific experience, or about any specific kind of person. I never had any doubts - for me the poem was about the nature of experience itself. I'll try to explain: it is frequently the case that some crisis leads me to feel that the entire world has manifested a universal co-efficient of adversity, and that every particular object I experience is imbued with this natural adversity. Every particular object or sound or event has a character which seems inimical to me - to my self. These are the 'thousand bars'. The thousand closed doors, the thousand embarrassing refusals, the thousand excruciating regrets. Behind them, for me, there is no world. Sometimes (not perpetually, but often) there are only the bars.

The next stanza presents us with the picture of stasis trapped within motion (paralysed force - gesture without motion). In the midst of my motion, of my rushing from being late for one meaningless appointment to being late for the next, I am transfixed. I cannot move a single inch, yet all the while the dance goes on - work, two-three, sleep, two-three, eat, four-five, drink, four five, work, two-three... In the midst of my motion, in the very act of dancing rhythmically from one event to the next, I am frozen. Screaming soundlessly. Unable even to die. I often find the middle stanza the most disturbing - it presents us with horror, rather than with tragedy as do the first and third sections.

The last verse, for me, sets the poem apart as a very deeply inspired work, and marks it as the product of Genius. 'Only at times the curtain of the pupils lifts', Rilke tells us. Is this to be a reprieve, then? Is this moment of perception to be a break from the monotony of the horror? Indeed not. For the image penetrates us - I see a woman smile at me, I hear a laugh or a song or just a battered flower giving up its petals to the wind - I feel the beauty of the image as it enters me, plunging down through my weary, sickly body like a needle, and then it dives into my heart which is already overflowing with cynicism and despair, and the poor image is utterly extinguished. It 'plunges into the heart, and is gone.' What does this say about the heart of the Panther? What kind of place is that where no light reaches, where no warmth can survive, where no laughter or music is ever heard? This for me is the stroke of genius by which Rilke doesn't just describe existential despair, but by which he INSPIRES it - summons it whole - for his reader. I experience the emotions which Rilke is describing, and that's why I think it's such an amazing work.

I read recently in Nathaniel Tripp's 'Father, Soldier, Son', that loneliness 'stalks' us always, and all through life. Indeed it does. Loneliness is The Panther.

Interpretation by vet-san: I originally heard this poem in the movie, "Awakenings". Great Movie... But the poem stuck with me, I've felt like the panther many times... I read all the interpretations on your sight, and could "see" them all. But, there was one thing that I got from the poem that wasn't mentioned. The part about circling down to the tiniest hub. This seems a spiral to me. A large spiral may seem like numerous concentric circles, but it's just one line. It's two dimensional all, but translated to me, it means it doesn't matter what direction the panther walks, or how many steps...the panther is still in the cage. No escape. And the line about the easy stride makes it all the more tragic. The panther is a creature of grace and nature in it's stride. A stride to nowhere. I dont really humanize the panther much... It's occurs to me that it could be a person in prison...or more likely a slave. It's a horrible thing to be owned and dehumanized.... Anyway....I dont get into peotry much outside of music....

Interpretation by Eric Jaimes: I can see the analogy you draw to an inner city kid, and I think in many ways it fits. However, I think Rilke's portrayal of the panther is much more tragic. For example, I think any kid with a "mighty will" could escape his surroundings if he puts his mind to it. I think the "mighty will" that Rilke refers to is not the human sort, though. It is not easy, of course, for inner city kids to get out, but in short I think the kid has a better chance of escape than the panther. Also, an inner city kid is living nonetheless in a human environment. You could say it is a "natural habitat" for the kid. Not an ideal one, perhaps, although by the same token perhaps some inner city kids would be miserable in the country. The panther, however, is contained against his will, removed from his natural environment and imprisoned for the sake of entertaining people. Panthers, unlike people, do not live in a variety of environments (i.e. rural vs. urban), but know only one way, the way of nature. Furthermore, Rilke's writing suggests that the panther does not comprehend his imprisonment; he keeps pacing, aimlessly, but can see only bars, nothing but bars and nothing beyond the bars.

The "ritual dance" of his "powerful soft strides" is a strong image. The "mighty will" of the panther is one totally at odds with such imprisonment. If you've ever seen a wild cat pacing in a zoo, you can visualize this ritual dance and see the hopeless frustration of the animal in this pacing in cramped circles. The image of the cat pacing around this mighty entity, this personified will, is a sad ritual, but the only one in which he can partake.

The final stanza is maybe the most powerful, that of the hunter's instinct stifled. Only at times an image enters in from behind this world of bars - maybe a spectator at the zoo, maybe another imprisoned animal or a free bird - something which penetrates into the panther's trance and awakens a deep lying instinct. The image rushes in, perhaps with a surge of adrenaline, through the strong, tensed muscles of the panther, plunges into the heart and is gone. That the image dies in the heart is significant, because that is where the animal is paralyzed, at the very core of his being. Only after triggering a series of instinctual reactions does the image leave the panther, helplessly unfulfilled. How sad this image is, but how apt at capturing what we humans have achieved by imprisoning this godlike creature for our own intrigue and amusement.

Interpretation by Misha: Personally, I disagree with your interpretation of lines 5 and 6, though. To me it's a straight-forward description of the panther pacing. Pacing in a tight circle. It sounds just like a cat's stride, to me. But this "easy stride" is forced around in a tiny circle. With no better way to vent his immense energy and will, the cat circles, stunned and numb and hopeless.

9 through 12, I think it's just simply a story of the caged animal, withdrawn. He looks out, occasionally seeing something which might interest him, but again he is numbed, because there is no hope of interaction anyway. That's not part of his little world. He remembers that he is caged. The interest dies.

So the question becomes, how do we interpret this simple story of a caged animal? You think it's Man vs. Nature. That's perfectly valid. I think it may be Man vs Himself. The boundaries we place between ourselves and others, our self-imposed bars and forbidden interactions. We may yearn to touch and laugh, but render ourselves incapable of reaching out. We keep our affections and greetings and desires pent up, and talk ourselves out of life. Insecurities are our bars. Routine is our bars. Guilt and fear are bars. You get the picture.

Interpretation by John Johnson: I think my interpratation is somewhat different.I mean that because I was a soldier and i was wounded and it's more of an emotional prison,only because the more i try to forget about it the stronger the memory becomes, Also because the bond of brotherhood in an elite unit was broken,and i suppose that real emotion that your not invincible. I mean that by doing what i was doing was dangerous,but it was exciting and you felt like that cat (a hunter) doing what his instinct was telling him what to do and my particular cage is civilian life.same thing every day,the bars and beyond 1000 bars more,cages aren't neccesarily physical surroundings. Sometimes they can be emotional prisons,and maybe those bars are stronger than iron,but you keep walking that circle because that's all that you have left inside of you and knowing what you had on the other side of those bars in a strange way sustains you, and somehow makes you stronger , and not just lie down and wasre away. I hope this makes some sense it's the only way i know how to convey it.thanks.

Interpretation by Anonymous: For me, the poem can reflect how a person with chronic illness feels (or any illness I suppose). Trapped. A sufferer of chronic illness often posseses all of their facilities then suddenly one day and for weeks on end they suffer a debilitating state. But because their true health is never far behind the memory of it is torture. So it's like being able to see outside of the bars.

Interpretation by Tammie Spivey:
Added 23 July 1999

I am intimately acquainted with a man, not unlike many a man who lives a life of tortured existence, who so resembles the panther in this poem. He is a beautiful and sensitive soul who is in every cramped by life's demands, cornered without any means of escape. It pains me to see him thwarted (barred) at every turn when he has so much to offer, so much to give. Knowing him and his hapless plight stirs me find some way to ensure his freedom, just as I would surely free the wild spirit imprisoned in this poem, were it within my ability.

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