The Rear-View Mirror: Rilke’s Panther (1907)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Everyone has a Rilke story, whether they realize it or not. How could it be otherwise that mine starts with that Panther behind bars. I swear, it must be a staple of a lot of movies and series just like the story of the scorpion and the frog, or the Wilhelm scream. Rilke’s Panther a story of entrapment: the panther paces back and forth, back and forth behind bars in its own hospitalistic way, because that is all it knows. It is one of many poems published in Rilke’s New Poems, published in 1907, although that specific poem might have been written as far back as 1902, when Rilke had a look at the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where there was a real black panther in a cage.

Painters in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

There might be no end of cheesiness to it, but I remember the scene in Penny Marshall’s Awakenings (1990) where Leonard, played by Robert De Niro, tells his doctor (played by Robin Williams), who is a kind of Oliver Sacks stand-in, how his disease affects him. He has a kind of locked-in syndrome which is only later recognized and diagnosed as encephalitis; Leonard can barely move his hand to write down the words Rilke’s Panther to describe in a couple of words how his disease feels to him while he is experiencing it.

Woody Allen has used the poem, too, in his 1988 film Another Woman. While it would be very easy to spoof such a much-used short poem in all kinds of ways, the film is quite a serious drama, starring Gena Rowlands, and Allen seems to keep his humour on the backburner this time. Rilke is used here to show how trapped the main character is inside herself, in a psychological sense. That’s the thing: a comedy would be hard-pressed to use the Panther in any funny way because it would not work tonally, and using it as a dramatic counterweight would seriously kill the comedy.

That’s the thing with poetry in movies: people don’t read poetry anymore, but what do writers bring in for the saddest moment in Four Weddings and a Funeral? That’s right – W. H. Auden. Again, it’s cheesy to some degree, but you can’t laugh about it. It’s hard to use already existing poetry as spoof, especially if it’s a favourite. Poetry might be ailing, but some of it has hardened into invulnerable bedrock, to be remembered and quoted. It needs to be taken seriously. You can spoof I am your father, Luke any which way you like, but Rilke’s Panther is still pacing back and forth behind bars, turning into its own metaphor, but not its own parody.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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