Rilke, as it happens, was a little stuck, creatively. Now, how this could happen to a great talent who’d already been a published author for 10 years, who was living in Paris, who was hanging out with Auguste Rodin, well, it’s hard to accept. Especially by those of us far less endowed.
Yet, Rilke wanted to do with the written word what Rodin did with the human form in clay, what Cézanne did with portraits, landscapes, and still life in oil paint. He wanted this, but he could not manifest it, and so he asked Rodin for advice.
Did Rodin prescribe extra doses of Freud and Nietzsche, or a remote, isolated cabin in the alps?
No, he recommended, instead, a trip to the zoo.
So Rilke, desperate for a change in his approach to writing — wanting to move away from a subjective voice and toward an objective one — visited Jardin des Plantes, where, back then, along with the botanical gardens, they still had animals. He took a seat on a bench and for hours watched the panther pacing back and forth in its small cage. The plight of the panther summoned deep empathy from the poet, and, as it turns out, this was the ingredient he’d been missing.
I used to love that story, for I love the poem that was born from it.
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
Thinking about it now, however, the payoff feels trivial.
A poet becomes unstuck creatively — resulting in his famous New Poems, a significant development in European literature — by observing a creature that is literally stuck, trapped in fact, a magnificent powerful ebony jungle cat, captured and shipped in a frigate’s dark cargo hold thousands of miles from its home, then put on cruel display as a symbol of French colonial might.
Given how my own “mighty will” is trapped in a body that is slowly becoming “paralyzed” by ALS, does this, perhaps, mean that my empathy for the panther might be nobler?
Somehow, I don’t think the panther would care either way.