“If people could put rainbows in zoos, they would.” While this quote is only from “Calvin and Hobbes,” it touches on a social issue that people have debated for many years:
Are people too focused on capturing nature’s beauty that they torture it when it should be free?
This question has been addressed in many forms of media–television, public demonstrations, even poetry. In his poem, “The Panther,” Rainer Maria Rilke puts forth his opinion forth regarding forcing nature into cages for observation and admiration. As he describes the monotonous imprisonment faced by a panther in the Jardin des Plantes, Rilke uses tropes, imagery, and unpleasantly evocative diction to force the reader to see life from the dismal vantage point of the caged jungle-cat, making it clear that nature should be set free–not locked behind iron bars.
Rilke begins with that very image–“iron bars,” describing how they are all the panther ever sees. The diction in the first two lines is suggestive of an unjustly monotonous life. Words such as “constantly passing,” or “weary” exhibit how the panther has been sentenced to an existence with an unchanging setting–one he has grown bored of (1-2). Rilke also uses enjambment to create two possible meanings for the phrase “cannot hold.”
The poem reads: “[the panther’s vision] has grown so weary that it cannot hold/anything else.” (2-3). If the “cannot hold” is seen as part of the second line, then it suggests that the panther has grown so tired that he might die because he is unable to hold on any longer. But, if the phrase is seen as the beginning of the third line, then it means that the panther’s eyes are so tired that all they can see is the bars that entrap them, nothing past that. This enjambment suggests a double meaning in Rilke’s poem.
To enforce the description of the panther’s dreary life, Rilke uses hyperbole, saying that to the panther “there are/a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world” (3-4). This exaggeration also serves as imagery; the reader can envision the incessant procession of impenetrable bars passing through the panther’s vision. This helps to highlight the endlessness of the perimeter of the cage as the panther “paces in cramped circles, over and over” (5).
This line, which begins the next stanza, is an example of Rilke’s utilization of select diction. The phrase “cramped circles” evokes connotations of discomfort and boredom which cause the reader to sympathize with the panther. Once the reader feels sympathetic, Rilke uses positive words like “powerful” or “soft” to describe the panther and make the reader appreciate his beauty, his ability to be both powerful and soft. Once Rilke has built up the panther’s nobility and “mighty will,” he makes it evident that no matter how majestic the panther is, his majesty is compromised as long as he is behind iron bars. As long as he is in captivity, the panther is stuck doing a “ritual dance around a center/in which a mighty will stands paralyzed” (7-8). The dance is still beautiful, but it is a shadow of what it would be if he was in his natural environment. Humans capture the panther to observe his elegance, but his beauty is compromised as long as he is confined to a cage. When he could be a part of nature, he is stuck on display at the hands of mankind.
In his final stanza, Rilke unveils some of the strongest diction in the poem to convey that the panther has become so desensitized that even when he does see beyond his cage, he makes nothing of the image. Rilke uses the word “curtain” to describe the shroud that years of captivity have put over the animal’s eyes. The word “curtain” is significant because it suggests that the panther has lost all ability to see beauty in the world. Curtains keep out light, and the panther can no longer see the light of existence and nature. Rarely, when the curtain “lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,/rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,/plunges into the heart and is gone” (10-12). Many words stick out here, but the most noteworthy are: rushes, tensed, arrested, plunges, and gone.
The word “rushes” indicates how when the panther does see images beyond his cage, they move and are gone so quickly that he might as well never have seen them at all. When the muscles are described as “tense” and “arrested,” it conveys the physically overwhelming sensation the panther feels when he perceives an image of the outside world. It’s as if the panther goes into a state of panic–being trapped and not knowing anything of the outside world, he is inundated by unrecognized stimuli, has no control, and simply tenses up–succumbing to the moment and waiting for it to be over. Years of captivity have reduced the panther to a submissive zoo exhibit.
The word “plunge” usually carries negative connotations, and when the light of free living “plunges” to the panther’s heart, it reveals that the panther is tortured and can’t even comprehend life on the outside. Usually, perception of the world is a pleasant and cherished thing, but to the panther it is an instant of quickly forgotten mental stimulation and physical paralysis. The fairness of the world simply gets flushed through the panther’s heart and is gone forever.
This poem is a representation of how the world has become so human-centered that all other living beings are objectified and seen as tokens of human amusement. The value of the lives of non-human creatures are drastically discounted in the modern day, when humans worshipped animals in days of old. The purpose of his poem is to make the audience see what it’s like to be the panther rather than the human observer outside the cage. Through his use of diction, imagery, and hyperbole, Rainer Maria Rilke makes the audience realize how cruel and unnatural it is to lock up a wild animal for human amusement by figuratively placing the reader in the cage for a firsthand experience of captivity.