Monday, June 6, 2016


Smut in comments mentioned Rilke, and I vaguely remembered that Rilke, in turn, had something to do with leopards, which turns out to be true, except the German name for the cat (Pantherus pardus) isn't "leopard", of course, which is why my memory was vague (in addition to hardly having read any Rilke at all in English, to be truthful, let alone German); it's Der Panther that is the title of Rilke's more-or-less most famous poem, which makes English speakers (including me, obviously) think of the all-black variety and not the spotted animal Rilke saw at the Paris zoo in early November 1902.
Animal artists at the Jardin des Plantes, anonymous, from the magazine L'Illustration, August 7 1902. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Anyway, I did a translation—
The Leopard
In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Inside the cage his gaze, bar after bar,
has gone too tired to fix things; it's as though
the thousand bars were all the things there are,
no world behind, or nothing he can know.

His steps are strong as diamond, but the gait
is soft, like tightening circles round a kill,
a dance of power, to circumambulate
the numbed and staggering center of his will.

Yet sometimes something noiseless lifts the veil—
and a rare image enters through his eyes
into the silence of tensed paws and tail,
and settling in his heart it dies.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902
Amur leopard from Siberia, via WWF.
Younger readers have probably never seen the horror that was the traditional zoo, but I remember vividly a leopard just like Rilke's, at the National Zoo in Washington, the summer I turned 18, in its small, bare cage, pacing a neurotic nonstop circle, hardly looking up, one of the worst things I've ever seen. (I love modern zoos and their fake natural environments, as in the tiger and gorilla enclosures in the Bronx, though I suppose as last week's Cincinnati tragedy reminds us, there's a real moral question whether they should exist. I once had the opportunity to chat with the then director of the Singapore Zoo, who told me that the animals are ambassadors from the world of nature, doing noble and satisfying work, which convinced me at the time, but I'm worried about diplomatic immunity—can humans be trusted to honor their side of the deal?)

And the German text:

Der Panther

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.

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