Rainer Maria Rilke
Austrian stamp issued
December 29, 1976

Notes to Poem:

First Poem in Paris

Robert Pinsky's
Poetry Workshop
Stanford University
February 14, 2007

By Peter Y. Chou

The Cat People
starring Simone Simon
Film Poster, 1942

Preface: After the "Anonymous Poems Workshop" of January 31, Pinsky asked the students whether they would like to do it again. They overwhelmingly responded "Yes!" So Pinsky asked us to submit another anonymous poem when he's back on Wednesday, February 14. None guessed my poem "Small Talk" which surprised even Pinsky, so I wondered what to do for an encore. Several of the poems on my drawing board were clearly so philosophical that would lead to easy identification. When I went to see the film Cat People (1942) at the Stanford Theatre on February 9, the opening scene with the Serbian fashion artist Irena (Simone Simon) sketching a panther pacing back and forth behind the bars reminded me of Rilke's "The Panther" (1902). Forty years separated the poem and the film, hence forty lines in this poem. Forty is also the symbol of transformation (Noah and the Flood, Moses on Mt. Sinai, Christ in the Desert) and the transformation theme haunts Irena who believes that she'll change into a panther if emotionally aroused by a kiss or jealousy. Transformation is also a major theme in Rilke's poetry as the last line in his "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (1908)— "You must change your life." Rilke's interaction with Rodin as his secretary (1902-1903) changed his writing style. Rodin recommended Rilke to visit the Paris Zoo to cure his writer's block. "What should I do there?" the young 27 year-old poet asked the 62 year-old master. "Just look" Rodin tells Rilke, "until you capture the essence of the animal." This kind of "in-seeing" is precisely what Basho recommended to his students in Kawazu Awase (1686) to "become one with the bamboo" if you wish to write about it. "The Panther" (1902) is Rilke's oldest poem in New Poems (published in 1907) where Rilke's poetry veered in a new direction of acute observation of objects and "in-seeing". I've blended scenes from the Cat People film, fantasizing that Rilke meeting Irena sketching the panther at the zoo as the basis of his first poem in Paris. I've changed the zoo setting to a carnival because Pinsky and the Stanford students will readily identify this as my poem since I wrote a poem about the Maguari Stork at the San Francisco Zoo for his February 24 Workshop. I hope this change will sidetrack the class so they'll not pin me down as the anonymous poem's author. After finishing my poem, I gathered six books on Rilke from the Stanford stacks at Green Library (40 paces from my work desk) to learn more about Rilke's experience with Rodin. I've typed up these notes not as an explanation to my poem, but as references in learning more on the influence of a great artist on a young poet who became truly great. After sending my anonymous poem to Ryan Jacobs of the English Department for assembly at 10 pm, Feb. 12, I realized that the font Times and format (40 lines in ten 4-line stanzas) were identical to my previous anonymous poem "Small Talk" which will be easily identified as my poem. So I changed the font to Charcoal, size=9, to imitate the charcoal sketch of the Cat People film, hoping to lend some synchronicity of my poem to the dark image of the panther. This revised version was sent 1:30 pm Feb. 13 which Ryan acknowledged receiving to be included in the "Anonymous Poems" for Pinsky's class.

The poet has writer's block
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) arrived in Paris in September 1902. He was commissioned by a German publisher to write a monograph on Rodin. He was 27, and already an accomplished poet with many works behind him (9 books of poetry and fiction between 1894-1899). This early work is unremittingly subjective and feeling-centered. The move to Paris was to change everything. His meeting with Rodin soon deepened into near discipleship. As his enthusiasm for Rodin's work increased, so did his dissatisfaction with his own poetry. Rodin's energy and dedication to sculpture seemed to Rilke a rebuke to his own lyric dexterity and slavish dependence on inspiration. With Rodin's "travailler, toujours travailleer" (work, always work) ringing in his ears, Rilke wandered about Paris practicing the art of observation. He began to entertain the idea of poetry that would answer to what he described as Rodin's "art of living surfaces"— a poetry that would somehow manage to belong to the world of things rather than feelings. [Edward Snow (tr.), Rilke, New Poems (1907), pp. ix-x (PT2635.I65.N413.1984)]
    I find it amusing that Rilke surrounded by blocks of marble in Rodin's studio is having "writer's block". Rilke was admiring and adoring Rodin's sculptures so much and not realizing that those blocks of marble were blocking his own poetic juices from flowing out. Curiously, it was when Rilke ventured outdoors away from the confines of Rodin's studio that his writing blossomed.

marvels at the sculptor
The sculptor is Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Rilke arrived in Paris on August 28, 1902 [Goethe's 153rd birthday]. In his own bewilderment and feeling of insecurity, Rilke could enjoy, in the accomplishment and universal repute of Rodin, a vicarious sense of stability. This was the second attempt to hitch his wagon to a star: Rodin assumed the role that Rilke had once hoped might be played by Tolstoy. Like Goethe's Tasso, Rilke needed a rock to which to cling, and it had to be a rock of impressive dimensions, a rock which was at once an anchor and a challenge; for not only did it give him stability, but it confronted him as something immeasurably greater than himself on which he could fix his sights in his own long and painful climb to the summit. Rilke's association with Rodin was founded in the first instance upon hero-worship, and this attitude is reflected in the tone of sycophantic humility which runs through all the letters which he wrote to Rodin... Rilke had relied solely on inspiration. Rodin, on the other hand, is scornful of inspiration, considering it incapable of producing anything other than "une fausse originalité"... It was in practical matters that the sculptor could most help the dreaming, excessively subjective, and self-centered poet. Rilke's early weaknesses stemmed from the fact that he was, in some respects, too liberally endowed with poetic gifts... Seeing Rodin at work, and above all of being able to experience the finished product in visible and tangible form, was to wean Rilke away from his hyper-sensitivity and force him to concentrate his attention on things outside himself. This process of occupying himself with external objects and of increasing his powers of observation was further promoted in various ways under Rodin's guidance. [K.A.J. Batterby, Rilke and France: A Study in Poetic Development (1966), pp. 36-73 (PT2635.I65Z592)]

polishes marble on and on
Rilke relied on divine inspiration for his poetry. Rodin's motto was "travailler, toujours travailleer" (work, always work). Being such an admirer of Rodin and his prodigious productivity day in and day out, Rilke began to model himself after the sculptor's work style.

He asks for advice
Rodin's former pupil Clara Westhoff became Madame Rilke (April 28, 1901). Rilke had a great deal to learn from Rodin, Rodin almost nothing from Rilke. The one, at 27, was still a little-read poet, quite unknown in Paris. The other, at 62, had been a famous sculptor for a long time. Rilke was in awe of Rodin from the start and did not waver in his admiration for the artist even after the man had shrunk somewhat in his esteem. Rilke arrived in Paris at the end of August 1902. By September 2 he was able to report to Clara, who had been left behind temporarily in Westerwede: "Yesterday, Monday afternoon at three, I was at Rodin's for the first time. The studio at 182, rue de l'Université... He dropped his work, offered me a chair, and we talked. He was extremely kind and gentle. And I felt as if I had known him forever... I like him very much. That I knew immediately. We discussed a number of things... Then he went back to work and invited me to have a look at all the things standing about in the studio." Rodin was greeted each morning by his blocks of marble, while Rilke lamented that the only things waiting for him were his pencil and paper. No new strength flowed into him from teh material itself. He had to rely completely on his own imagination and could only train himself in patience and concentration. Also, Rodin's way of looking at things, which did not depend on a first or second or tenth impression but on countless precise observations that ultimately coalesced in the rendering of the timeless and archetypal, was very different from Rilke's working method; for at that time the poet still relied on an impressionistic re-creation of feelings. In the final instance, the one concerned himself with spatial and visible, the other with verbal and imaginary relationships... It would be a long time before Rilke could adopt even for brief periods Rodin's answer: "En travaillant"— "Through his work!" Only in one respect did the older man's advice and example have an immediate effect: in the care with which Rilke handled his material, the German language, from this point on. It was in Paris, of all places, that he first got his hands on the Grimm Brothers' German Dictionary and began to study it systematically in an attempt to wrest from individual words both the broadest range of meaning and the greatest possible semantic precision... Rilke told Clara: "This is what matters: not to be content with daydreaming, making resolves, keeping in the right mood, but to turn everything into an object, by force if necessary. As Rodin has done."
    Shortly after Rodin had met the young Rilke, he advised him to go to the Paris zoo so that he might learn to see. Rilke, who was an animal lover anyway, did not have to be told twice. During the following years, he spent many hours in the Jardin des Plantes, to which he had access through an autorisation d'artistes, a special pass for painters and other artists, from 8:00 to 11:00 in the morning, before the general public was admitted. One of the first results of this apprenticeship in "seeing" was a poem "The Panther" printed in the Prague cultural monthly Deutsche Arbeit in September 1903. [Wolfgang Leppmann, Rilke: A Life (1984), pp. 167-179, 214-217 (PT2635.I65.Z782313.1984)]

to go to the carnival
As explained in the preface, I changed the setting from zoo to carnival, mainly to mislead the Stanford students that I wrote this anonymous poem since my earlier poem was on the "Maguari Stork" at the San Francisco Zoo. In his chapter "Paris and Rodin", Batterby writes "On Rodin's advice, Rilke spent many hours in the Jardin des Plantes,. He was not merely concerned with the superficial observation of the external appearance of the animals, but studiously attempted to probe their character and consciousness... In addition, Rodin took him to the great cathedrals and instructed him in a knowledgeable appreciation of Gothic architecture. As well as diverting his attention away from himself and sharpening his sensory perception— especially training him in the art of seeing— these pursuits had the further immeasurably valuable result of vastly enriching the poet's store of general experience. [K.A.J. Batterby, Rilke and France (1966), pp. 55-56]
    It is interesting that Pinsky's first words to the class (Jan. 10, 2007) was quoting Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" (1926): "Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence; / And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium." The young Rilke was fortunate to have Rodin showing him the great cathedrals of Paris— these "monuments of magnificence" became "the singing-masters" of Rilke's soul and molded him into a great poet.

soak up the autumnal air
Rilke began working in Rodin's Paris studio in September 1902, so the season would be autumn. Rodin had often impressed on Rilke how greatly he had profited from early morning excursions about town, the public gardens, and zoos of Paris when the world was still fresh and its inhabitants, people, animals, and plants, were still themselves: "On voit les animaux et les arbres chez eux" (One sees the animals and the trees on their premises). At this time, before city smog, imposed habits, as well as the demands of getting through the day would demean them, the creatures of this world seemed how they really meant to be. In particular, during these early hours even the animals in the zoos (despite their captivity) remained at least unmolested by encroaching crowds. [Volker Durr, Rainer Maria Rilke: The Poet's Trajectory (2006) pp. 40-41 (PT2635.I65.Z672.2006)]

a torn charcoal sketch
This is a scene from the film Cat People. When Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) leaves the the zoo, her torn charcoal sketch of a panther pierced by a sword is blown into a pile of autumn leaves against the cage. This image of autumn and the panther reminded me of Rilke writing his "Panther" poem in the autumn of 1902 in Paris. The scene from Cat People is from Central Park, New York in 1942. I've woven these two events together in this poem as an imaginary encounter between these two figures at the panther cage in the Paris Zoo. (Left: Scene from panther cage in Cat People film)

organ-grinding music leads him to a cage
The opening scene of the film Cat People shows Irena sketching the restless panther
pacing back and forth in his cage, with an organ-grinder playing nearby.

sweet aroma draws him near
When Irena and Oliver enters Irena's apartment in the film Cat People, he notices the heavy perfumed scent of the interior. Irena says "That's Lalage, the perfume I use. I like it, perhaps too well. Maybe I use too much of it, living alone like this." J.C. Cooper writes in Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols that the panther has "sweet breath" and "typified the sweet influence of Christ." In Wikipedia's "Panther: Legendary Creature" we find the following interesting entry: "Under medieval belief after feasting the panther will sleep in a cave for a total of three days. After this period ends, the panther roars, in the process emiting a sweet smelling odour. This odour draws in any creatures who smell it (the dragon being the only creature immune) and the cycle begins again." (Note: Lalage is a feminine name derived from Greek lalageo meaning "to babble, to prattle". This name was used by the Roman poet Horace in one of his Odes. Rudyard Kipling's poem "Rimini" begins with "When I left Rome for Lalage's sake" and ends with "And I've lost Rome and, worst of all, / I've lost Lalage!" 822 Lalage is a minor planet orbiting the Sun.)

He's German, she's Serb— Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875—December 29, 1926) is generally considered the German language's greatest 20th century poet. He was born in Prague, Bohemia and died In Switzerland. Simone Simon (April 23, 1910—February 22, 2005) was a French film actress who began her film career in 1931. She was born in Béthune, Pas-de-Calais, France and died at age 94 in Paris, France. In the film Cat People (1942), she played the role of a Serbian fashion artist working in New York City. Simone Simon grew up in Marseille. She came back in Paris in 1931 and worked briefly as a singer, model and fashion designer. She was 16 years old when Rilke died. Since Rilke left Paris in 1910, they could not have run into each other. After seeing the opening scene in the Cat People film on February 9, I imagined Rilke's encounter with Irena sketching the panther at the zoo as the inspiration of his "Panther" poem 40 years earlier in Paris.

the dark energy swirling
In a Life magazine interview (Feb. 25, 1946), Lewton aptly expressed the reason for his success with Cat People when he said: "I'll tell you a secret: if you make the screen dark enough, the mind's eye will read anything into it they want! We're great ones for dark patches. The horror addicts will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of."

She invites him up for tea
In the film Cat People (1942), the Serbian fashion artist Irena invites the American architect Oliver up to her brownstone apartment for tea after their first encounter at the zoo. "Have a cup of tea!" is a favorite saying of Zen masters to their students who are trapped in language and gets too intellectual. One can't speak when drinking tea, thus the student's thought waves are quietened. When the mind is still, spiritual awakening occurs. We find it in Case 95 of Hekiganroku (Blue Cliff Records, 10th century) when Chokei and Hofuku discuss the Buddha's words— Chokei said, "What is the Buddha's language?" Hofuku said, "Have a cup of tea." We find this phrase in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922, p. 55): "Cup of tea soon. Good." In his book of poetry Bone of Space (1982), Zen Master Seung Sahn writes:

    Now drink a cup of tea— better than seeing,
    Better than hearing.
(p. 41)

    Someone asked Joju
    What is Buddha?
    Joju answered,
    Go drink tea!
(p. 74)

the bars and behind the bars
The German word Stäbe (bars) is repeated three times in the first four lines of Rilke's poem "The Panther", and the last word of line three gäbe, rhymes with it. We cannot ignore the sound, which is repeated insistently and underscores the repetitive, inescapable quality of the bars themselves. It seems to the panther that not he but the bars are "passing back and forth", until they have become a dynamic and absolute reality. Nor is the panther himself ever mentioned again, once the title has introduced him. The sound, rhythm, and tactile quality of his pacing are presented through both the meaning and the sound of the words of the second stanza... The panther's world is shown to be one of loss and absence. In its form the poem reflects its content. Like the activity of the panther, it is a circle, though this is not evident in the translation. In the original the first word, Sein (His), and the last, sein (to be), are homophones. The poet has brought us back to where we began, just as the panther always must return to the same spot. In addition, lines 6 and 7, describing the small, tight circle of the "dance of strength around a center", fall at the precise center of the poem. Finally, Rilke uses fairly regular iambic feet, with alternating feminine and masculine rhyme, so that a swinging, sinuous rhythm is produced. But the last line, in which the image ceases to exist in the heart of the cat, is short by a foot. The abruptness of this line echoes that of the extinction of the image and, as it were, slams the door on any possibility of renewal. [Patricia Pollock Brodsky, Rainer Maria Rilke (1988) pp. 87-88 (PT2635.I65.Z6287.1988)]

thousands of bars to endless night
Rilke could not stifle his feeling without denying himself, and, in poetry as in life, he was always ill at ease with the purely factual. The way in which emotion is introduced is subtle and controlled, but it is there. He does not know that the fixed gaze of the panther betokens frustration; he infers it. There are not really a thousand bars to the cage; it is only by projecting himself into the existence and movements of the animal, by the operation of the creative vision, that the image is expanded into something greater than the object actually seen by the eye. Leconte de Lisle would have been content to record the animal walking in circles; but Rilke sees the repeated, monotonous movement as a dance, at the centre of which is a great will. And Rilke does not know that the beast takes in a visual impression proceeds through the muscular limbs to the heart. It is this constant working of the poet's inner vision, the unobtrusive, scarcely perceptible commentary of the imagination, raising and transmuting the physical into the stuff of mind and the emotions, which gives the poem its distinctive character and prevents it from becoming a mere statuesque portrayal. In this way, Rilke retains his poetic individuality and integrity even while obeying Rodin's counsel and honouring his methods.
    Such is the wealth of impressions packed into Der Panther, and so complex and compelling are the feelings aroused, that it comes as something of a surprise to the reader to find that all this has been achieved in a matter of only twelve lines. This concision and economy of words— a notable feat by any standards— is a marked step forward from the prolixity and diffuseness of the earlier works. Der Panther is complete; short as it is, not one word could be added. Already Rilke is learning the disciplined and critically informed handling of language; he is developing the mastery by which, through careful selection and skilful placing, the utmost emotive value is extracted from every word. [K. Batterby, Rilke and France (1966), pp. 64-65]
    "to endless night" is from John Donne's Holy Sonnets, V
shown as the last frame at the end of the film Cat People (see below)

in this black world that must die
The film Cat People ends with John Donne's Holy Sonnets, V:
        But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
        My world, both parts, and both parts must die.

to a fresh image striking his eye—
This line refers to the poet having a new vision and not to the panther in Rilke's poem whose eyes opens to let the outside image comes into its body only to travel through the muscles and die in its heart. Batterby contrasts the medium of poetry and sculpture: "For movement was the one thing the sculptor could never create; he could create only its illusion. We are thus confronted with the interesting contradiction of two men trying to reach out in opposite directions, beyond the circumscribing limits of their media: Rodin, on the one hand, was striving for movement, for the impossible; on the other, Rilke, under the influence of Rodin and seeking to imitate him, was aiming to produce the stability and solidity and self-contained completedness of a work of sculpture... Rilke, in the end was bound to accept the incompatibility of sculpture and poetry as regards their power to fertilize each other... It is that, alone among artists, the writer uses words, which have meanings. Its importance in the present context of the Rodin experience lies in the consequent recognition that, whereas sculpture (painting and music as well) is sensorily perceived, poetry, even when it is appealing to the emotions, is absorbed and interpreted by the intelligence; though not an intellectual exercise, it does belong to the realm of ideas, however swift or spontaneous the emotional or sensory response to the words. Where in the other arts the effect produced by the work proceeds through the senses and feelings to the intelligence, in literature the process is reversed. [K.A.J. Batterby, Rilke and France (1966), pp. 67-68]

his first poem in Paris "The Panther" was born
"The Panther" was written in Paris in late 1902. In addition to the panther in the Jardin des Plantes, Rilke was probably remembering a small Greek statue of a panther (or tiger) in Rodin's studio. In a letter to his wife Clara Rilke, September 27, 1902, Rilke writes:
        In his studio in the rue de l'Université, Rodin has a tiny plaster cast
        of a tiger (antique) which he values very highly: C'est beau, c'est tout
        [It's beautiful, it's everything], he says of it. And from this little
        plaster copy I have seen what he means, what antiquity is and what links
        him to it. There is in this animal the same kind of aliveness in the modeling;
        on this little Thing (it is no higher than my hand is wide, and no longer than
        my hand is) there are a hundred thousand places, as if it were something really
        huge— a hundred thousand places that are all alive, active, and different.
        all this just in plaster! And the representation of the prowling stride is
        intensified to the highest degree, the powerful downward tread of the broad
        paws, and simultaneously that caution in which all strength is wrapped, that silence.
[Stephen Mitchell (Ed.), The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1982), Notes, p. 300 (PT2635.I65.A2525.1982)]

Panther Symbolism:
This poem was inspired by Rilke's "The Panther" (1902) that was written upon the advice of Rodin who told him to visit the Paris Zoo. It is an example of "in-seing"— becoming one with the object so we have an insight of its essence. After completing the poem, I consulted two books from my library:

Panther: Christian: The panther was said to save people from the dragon or Evil One. As supposed to have sweet breath, it typified the sweet influence of Christ. Heraldic: The panther is usually incensed and signifies fiercesness; fury; impetuosity; remorselessness. displays and games in the arena.
— J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols,
     Thames & Hudson, London, 1978, p. 126

Panther: The panther (or leopard) was a totemic symbol of Dionysis,
whose priests wore panther-skins. Its name in Greek meant "All-beast" referring
to the god as "the All" which was also another beast version of divinity, Pan.
Panthers were much admired in Rome, and were imported from Africa for public
displays and games in the arena.
— Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects,
     HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1988, p. 385

Panther Skin: A symbol signifying the overcoming of the lower desires.
"The iron which is the ceiling of heaven opens itself before Pepi, and he passes
through it with his panther skin upon him, and his staff and whip in his hand."
— E.A. Wallis Budge, Book of the Dead, Vol. I, p. lxiii.
The higher mind, which is the firmament below the buddhic plane, is receptive
of the consciousness of the purified soul which has overcome the desires,
and actively aspires to that which is above.
— G. A. Gaskell, The Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myth,
     Avenel Books, NY, 1981 (original: Julian Press, 1960), p. 559

More on Panther Mythology from the Web.

Rilke's Poem The Panther (1902)
Der Panther

            Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen 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.

The Panther

            Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

From seeing the bars, his seeing is so exhausted
that it no longer holds anything anymore.
To him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
bars, and behind the bars, nothing.

The lithe swinging of that rhythmical easy stride
which circles down to the tiniest hub
is like a dance of energy around a point
in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

Only at times the curtains of the pupil rise
without a sound . . . then a shape enters,
slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
reaches the heart, and dies.

translated by Robert Bly

Web Links: Rilke's Poem The Panther (1902)
Der Panther read in German
German with 6 English translations
The Panther: A Compendium of Translations
Kenneth S. Calhoon, "The Eye of the Panther: Rilke and the Machine of Cinema"
(Comparative Literature, University of Oregon, 2000)

Cat People Film (1942)
Wikipedia: Cat People (1942 film)
Internet Movie Database: Cat People (1942 film)
Jacques Tourneru Directs Cat People (14 photos & 4 posters)
Cat People Film Review by Tim Dirks(Synopsis & film quotes)
Cat People Film Review by Gerry Carpenter
Val Lewton Screenplay Collection: Cat People
Turner Classic Movies: Cat People
Rotten Tomatoes: Film Reviews of Cat People
Cat People Film Review by Richard Scheib

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