This poem is celebrated, and frequently translated,
but to me it seems to be somewhat mannered
and to lack empathy.

I would not have considered attempting a new translation
had I not come across the lithograph below.

The tortured animal was, of course, a leopard,
not a black panther.

Paul Jouve (1878-1973) - Panthère marchant.


in the Paris Zoo

His listless gaze can only, as he passes
repeating bars, register a blank despond -
bars that might as well for him be thousands
- bleak barrenness of bars : nothing beyond.

His limber lope, his softly-powerful paces
back and forth perform a numbing round,
a dance of potency about a stasis :
great will by sheer bewilderment is bound.

From time to time the veils across his eyeballs
to a momentary vision part :
a snapshot passes intensely through him,
and fades to dull extinction in his heart.

English translation by Anthony Weir



Portrait of Rilke by Knut Odde, 1897.

In 1905 Rilke moved to Meudon, near Paris,
to take the position of secretary to Auguste Rodin.
When Rilke told Rodin that he had not been able to write much,
the sculptor's advice was to go to the ghastly zoo in the Jardin des Plantes
and look at an animal until he 'truly saw' it.




Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

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.


Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel (1881-1965) - Pantherkopf.

The first version that I read, disappointedly, was by J.B. Leishman,
published in the Penguin edition of
Rilke, Selected Poems (1964) :

His gaze, going past those bars, has got so misted
with tiredness, it can take in nothing more.
He feels as if a thousand bars existed
and no more world beyond them than before.

Those supply powerful paddings, turning there
in tiniest of circles, well might be
the dance of forces round a centre where
some mighty will stands paralyticly.

Just now and then the pupils' noiseless shutter
is lifted - Then an image will indart,
down through the limbs' intensive stillness flutter,
and end its being in the heart.


more versions here


another Rilke poem >