Rilke: The Panther and the Writing Table

Castle Duino, Italy. Photo by Johann Jaritz

Rainer Maria Rilke was a sublime poet, one of the greatest lyric poets of the 20th century, and quite possibly a lousy human being. His Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus rank among the finest works of art in any language, taking us softly, profoundly to the nexus between life and death, pain and redemption, mourning and new hope. Through his poetry and other writings, he conveyed a level of empathy and understanding toward women that may surpass any poet in the last 100 years. Though it seemed he rarely showed that insight and understanding in real life, at least if we are to believe several recent accounts about Rilke’s life and loves.

If those portraits of the real Rilke are accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time such an apparent contradiction occurred. Not the first time a great artist, poet, novelist, musician, or philosopher led a less than exemplary life. Perhaps there is a dynamic that rears up as a near-impossible obstacle to overcome, in the case of artistic genius. Perhaps in order to make great art, one has to be selfish in ways that all too often hurt loved ones and friends, shock them, abuse and exploit them — at times. Perhaps another part of the drama and dynamic is the abuse and exploitation the artist suffers, especially when young. Though there can never be any hard and fast rule regarding this, it seems a common strain among the best artists that their own family drama was sordid, sickly and filled with pain.

In Rilke’s case, his childhood was turned upside down by the fact that his mother, Sophie, so mourned the loss of a week-old daughter that she dressed little Rene in girls’ clothes and tried to replace her with him. To make the impact even more violent on his psyche, his father, Josef, later tried to reverse course by sending him to a very harsh military school. I’m guessing it didn’t help his anxiety levels much when he, six years later, fell in love with Lou Andreas-Salome, Nietzche’s ideal disciple and fantasy lover, and a married woman at the time of Rilke’s fall. From 1912-1913, she trained with Freud to become a psychoanalist. She shared her insights with Rilke until his death in 1926, outliving him by eleven years. Lou is generally credited with getting Rilke to change his name from Rene to Rainer.

Rilke’s life remained fascinating until the end. He traveled widely, had several affairs with brilliant women and created great poetry. I’ll explore that in future posts. Will end this one with my translation of The Panther. A translation in the tradition of Ezra Pound. I do not read German, as he did not read Chinese. So I translate a translation already made. Stephen Mitchell’s, in this case . . . .

I mourn the fact that I do not live in a castle as I write this, especially one that overlooks the sea. And that I lack a stand-up writing desk, the kind Rilke used in that castle, with the wind coming through the medieval windows and the candles flickering, the smell of the sea, the song of the gulls, the moonlight across the floor. I mourn the fact that Rodin did not teach me how to craft poems like a sculptor, and that I was never a welcome guest of royalty. Then again, Rilke never heard the Beatles, or read Murakami or Kundera, or saw a film by Wong Kar-wai . . . .


The Panther


His worldview from the constantly moving bars
Has become predictable, boring and cannot hold
Anything more. The black cat sees a
Thousand bars, and beyond the bars, nothingness.

As he paces again and again in cramped circles,       
The movement of his powerful, athletic strides
Is like a ritual dance circling a core
In which a mighty will is engulfed in stone.

Only now and then the curtains of each pupil
Lift, slowly–. An image, a sound enters in,
Rushes down through the tensed, locked and waiting
Muscles, plunges straight into the heart and disappears.



–by Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation by Douglas Pinson, after Stephen Mitchell.



— by Douglas Pinson


Copyright ©2009, by Douglas Pinson and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.

Rilke: The Panther and the Writing Table
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