(go to the end of this blog for the text of the poem in Stephen Mitchell's splendid English translation, and the original German)
In a foreign language words are stripped of meaning, reduced to mere musical notation and to hieroglyph, a pattern of visual and aural images. I love the gothic “ss”, 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” in English, 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, 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 underline 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 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”.
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.
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