Monday, September 1, 2014

The Panther

Rainer Maria Rilke

Der Panther
(Im Jardin des Plantes, in 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 beträubt ein grosser Wille steht.

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

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
another thing. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a centre
in which a mighty will stands paralysed.

But then, at times, the curtain of the pupils
softly opens -. An image enters in,
rushes through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges through the heart, is lost within.

Translation by Stephen Mitchell

His gaze those bars keep passing is so misted
with tiredness, it can take in nothing more.
He feels as though a thousand bars existed,
and no more world beyond them before.

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

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

Translation by J. B. Leishman

His sight from ever gazing through the bars has grown           so blunt that it sees nothing more.
                  It seems to him that thousands of bars are
   before him, and behind him nothing merely.

The easy motion of his supple stride,
            which turns about the very smallest circle,
  is like a dance of strength about a center
                        in which a will stands stupefied.

                    Only sometimes when the pupil's film
                    soundlessly opens . . . then one image fills                    and glides through the quiet tension of the limbs                    into the heart and ceases and is still.

Translation by C. F. MacIntyre (re-arranged as a concrete poem by me)

        His gaze has been so worn by the procession
        Of bars that it no longer makes a bond.
        Around, a thousand bars seem to be flashing,
        And in their flashing show no world beyond.

        The lissom steps which round out and re-enter
        That tightest circuit of their turning drill
        Are like a dance of strength about a center
        Wherein there stands benumbed a mighty will.

        Only from time to time the pupil's shutter
        Will draw apart:  an image enters then,
        To travel through the tautened body's utter
        Stillness—and in the heart end.

        Translation by Walter Arndt

From seeing the bars, his seeing is so exhausted
that it no longer holds anything anymore.
To him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
bars, and behind the bars, nothing.

The lithe swinging of that rhythmical easy stride
which circles down to the tiniest hub
is like a dance of energy around a point
in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

Only at times the curtains of the pupil rise
without a sound . . . then a shape enters,
slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
reaches the heart, and dies.

Tranlation by Robert Bly

One of my favourite exercises, teaching English Lower Sixth classes, or Juniors in an American High School, the presentation of a poem in a language that most of them do not know, though their own language is rooted in it, so much of it will be familiar; and then not one but several translations, and ask them to establish benchmarks by which they can be graded: sound, meaning, vocabulary, form, tone, the use (or decision not to use) rhyme. 

Sound and tone are actually the most difficult. Because, reading in a foreign language that you do not understand, words are stripped of meaning, reduced to mere musical notation, to hieroglyph, a pattern of visual and aural images. But Germanic sounds and English sounds are very different; and sound engenders tone, and tone, in a poem of this quality, is harmonised with meaning.

I love the gothic "ss" - ß, apparently called an Eszett in German, which is logical - reminiscent of the capital B in English, a residue of Hoch Deutsch which I imagine is anachronism now; like the letter "f" in English, which also once stood for an elongated "s"; like the letter "y", which once stood for "th" and gave rise to so much confusion over "ye" and "you" and "the" and "thee" and "thou". 

I love the umlauts - those two dots above the letter "u" or "a" or "o" - and the way they soften words, yet leave open the possibility of quite another word with quite another sound, minus the umlaut. 

I love the use of capital letters to emphasise each noun, and the hidden inference contained in this of the predominance of things above people or places or actions in the German consciousness - unlike, say, Hebrew or Arabic, where the emphasis in the language is always on the actions. 

I love the familiarity of what I do not understand: the same alphabet that is yet so different in pronunciation; the same words almost on occasion, albeit slightly different in spelling, which allow me to detect the origins of both Yiddish and English, bifurcated from the same original plant. 

I love the delicate, pounding rhythm of the poem, which seems to enunciate the ceaseless prowling of the panther, back and forth, back and forth, across the narrow prison of his cage. 

I love the assonances and alliterations, the repeated "sh" sounds which seem to be the poet's way of calming this powerful yet confined beast, soothing it into acceptance of its dreadful, man-caged plight; and the gentle rhythm of each couplet, like a softly chanted lullaby that could so easily be set to music and sung to lull the beast to sleep.

Long after I first discovered this poem, I chanced upon the extraordinary story of Dr. Oliver Sachs, himself a Jew of German origins, and how, through the drug Eldopa, he was able to revive from physical (though never mental) catatonia a number of thirty-year victims of sleeping-sickness - a form of encephalitis, it appears. Amongst the many tales of these patients temporary "awakenings" (Vintage Books, 1999), he records the case of one man who, when asked what it was like to have spent thirty years mentally alert but physically comatose, responded not with a mere banal reply, but much more profoundly for it summarised his plight, with a verbatim recitation of Rilke's "Der Panther". 

Rilke makes several appearances in this collection; you will find him particularly here, and here.

You can find David Prashker at:

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The Argaman Press

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