Friday, July 25, 2014

Rilke and Slevogt: The Panther

As soon as I saw this etching by Max Slevogt of a black panther, I thought of Rainer Maria Rilke's 1902 or 1903 poem Der Panther, written as a response to Rilke's friend Rodin's urging to work directly from life. So as I had a bit of time on holiday this week, I tried to make my own version of Rilke's poem. I wouldn't call it a translation, as apart from retaining the four quatrains, I have ignored the form of the original - the metre and the rhyme. The best proper translation I know is that of my late friend Stephen Cohn in Neue Gedichte: New Poems (Carcanet, 1992). I didn't have this with me while I sat and struggled with the hilarious responses of Google Translate, but I did have the sensitive translation of Susan Ranson from Rainer Maria Rilke: Selected Poems (OUP, 2011). Back home I have taken the precaution of checking Google's grasp of German with the literal prose translation of Patrick Bridgwater in Twentieth-Century German Verse (Penguin, 1963). Any boo-boos remain, of course, my own.

Max Slevogt (1868-1932), Schwarzer Panther
Etching (with three extra panthers as drypoint remarques), 1914

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

His barred eyes have grown so tired
of pacing, they have emptied out.
As if there were a thousand bars
and beyond those thousand bars, a hollowness.

The supple flexure of his paws,
revolving in an ever-tightening gyre,
creates a passionate dance around
the still centre of his fierce, numbed will.

Just sometimes, the shutter of his lens
lifts, without a sound.
An image enters, pulses through the coiled spring of his sinews,
and winks out in his heart’s great silence.

translation © copyright Neil Philip 2014