Rilke The Panther by William H. GassAugust 7, 2012
Much more on Rilke, whose religious sensibilities and poetic genius drew me to him in my early twenties (now some goddamned 40 years ago) is in the twelve posts that are part of the category Rainer Maria Rilke. I love how Gass delves into Rilke’s history and comes up with the original impetus for The Panther. I have never stood in a zoo quite the same way after reading that poem and how would I love to hold that antique plaster cast (Rodin’s model below) in my hands. The contrast between sculptor and poet is precious here. Autumn demonstrates Rilke’s deep and abiding faith.
The Meudon (where Rodin’s studio is located and Rilke has found employment as the great man’s secretary) days begin to pass. Rilke reads Rodin’s press clippings in the villa’s little park and enjoys the garden’s postcard views, or he walks up the village slopes to a thick wood where he can brood., in a solitude free of Paris’s insistent presence or Rodin’s impalpable one. Among his wishes: that he could take the forest’s lofty fresh air back with him to the city, where the heat is oppressive, the atmosphere odiferous, stale, and heavy. He presses his face against the fence of the Luxembourg Gardens like one in jail, and even the flowers in their beds feel constrained to be there.
On September 11, Rilke does something so transparent, it almost ceases to be devious. He writes Rodin a letter. Like a lover, he explains that his poor French makes it difficult for him to express himself as he would like, and the care with which he prepares his questions make them seem contrived and inappropriate for the occasion; so he is sending on a few verses in French, with the hope that they will bring the two of them a little closer. After some customary fulsomeness, Rilke confesses, “It was not only to do a study that I came to be with you, — it was to ask you: how must one live?” The answer we’ve heard: `il faut travailler.’ However, Rilke says he has always waited for the beckon of the muse, waited for what he calls the creative hour, waited for inspiration. He has tried to form habits of diligence, but now he knows he must try again, try and succeed. Sadly .. .
… last year we had rather serious financial worries, and they haven’t yet been removed: but I think now that diligent work can disarm even the anxieties of poverty. My wife has to leave our little child, and yet she thinks more calmly and impartially of that necessity since I wrote her what you said: “Travail et patience.” I am very happy that she will be near you, near your great work…
I want to see if I can find a living in some form here in Paris, — (I need only a little for that). If it is possible, I shall stay. And it would be a great happiness for me. Otherwise, if I cannot succeed, I beg you to help my wife as you helped me by your work and by your word and by all the eternal forces of which you are the Master.
(Letter to Auguste Rodin, September 11, 1902. Letters, pp. 87-88.)
The verses in French Rilke wrote for Rodin have a German brother, because on the same day, doubtless after the same stroll through the same park, he also penned one of the two better-known autumn poems from The Book of Hours. His state of mind could be better represented.
The leaves are falling, falling from far away,
as though a distant garden died above us;
they fall, fall with denial in their wave.
And through the night the hard earth falls
farther than the stars in solitude.
We all are falling. Here, this hand falls.
And see — there goes another. It’s in us all.
And yet there’s One whose gently holding hands
let this falling fall and never land.
Despite his misery, his anxiety, Rilke is greedily gathering material. These months will be among his richest. Incidents of no apparent moment will crystallize and coalesce. Here is one. At the September, he writes to Clara:
Rodin has a tiny plaster cast, a tiger (antique), in his studio which he values very highly…And from this little plaster cast I saw what he means, what antiquity is and what links him to it. There, in this animal, is the same lively feeling in the modeling, this little thing (it is no higher than my hand is wide, and no longer than my hand) has hundreds of thousands of sides like a very big object, hundreds of thousands of sides which are all alive, animated, and different. And that in plaster! And with this the expression of the prowling stride is intensified to the highest degree, the powerful planting of the broad paws, and the same time, that caution in which all strength is wrapped that noiselessness …
(Letter to Clara Rilke, September 27, 1902. Letters, p. go. Rilke refers to the little tiger again in a letter to Lou Andreas Salome; August 15, 1903. Letters, p. 128.)
The panther Rilke will study in the Jardin des Plantes began to find its words, I suspect, as a tiny plaster tiger with a prowling stride and broad paws; the bars of his cage were borrowed from the Luxembourg Gardens, and his gaze from the poet’s own, as well as his sense of desperation. The abbreviated sonnet, J. B. Leishman suggests, was the earliest of the famous Dinge, or “thing,” poems, whose nature has been ascribed to Rilke’s Rodin experience. (J. B. Leishman, ed. and trans, Rainer Maria Rilke: Selected Works, vol. 2. Poetry. New York: New Directions, 1960, p. 178. These translations are from William H. Gass, Reading Rilke, New York: Knopf, 1999.)
His gaze has grown so worn from the passing
of the bars that it sees nothing anymore.
There seem to be a thousand bars before him
and beyond that thousand nothing of the world.
The supple motion of his panther’s stride,
as he pads through a tightening circle,
is like the dance of strength around a point
on which an equal will stands stupefied.
Only rarely is an opening in the eyes enabled.
Then an image brims
which slides the quiet tension of the limbs
until the heart, wherein it dies.
Rodin’s surfaces are there to suggest a reality that can only be inferred, just as fingers or a face, by gesture or expression, disclose a consciousness that would otherwise be indiscernible. Sculptures are things: they start as stuff, stuff taken from stuff like rock or clay, and they stay stuff until the artist gives them a determinate form so that, through that form, they may have life.
The poet’s problem is precisely the opposite. Language is our most important sign of elevated awareness, but language has weak presence. Though often on paper, it possesses no weight. A poem is like a ghost seeking substantiality, a soul in search of a body more appealing than the bare bone mere verses rattle. It is consequently not the message in a bottle that Rilke previously thought it was, nor a young man’s feelings raise like a flag.
All of us have emotions urgently seeking release, an many of us have opinions we think would do the world some good, however, the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized, not just things like tools and haberdashery that nature has neglected to provide, or memos and laws that society produces in abundance, but Ding an sich, as humans often fail to be, things in themselves.
In a strange way, Rilke’s new Rodin-induced resolve will unite the poet’s mostl primitive impulse — in this case, animism — with his most sophisticated inclination — art as an end, art that stands apart from nature; and in opposition to it, since nature does not and cannot produce it.