Rilke’s poem first reminds me of Kafka’s short story ‘The Hunger Artist”, written 20 years later. However, unlike Kafka who no doubt saw himself as being replaced with a virile panther after the forgotten “artist’s” cage had been cleared out (his self doubt central to the imagery), Rilke uses this imagery to show us something that is trapped and cannot escape. It’s possible Rilke wanted to show us how mankind had been “successful” in capturing nature, controlling it at the turn of the century. Stefan Zweig describes his WWI ultimately.
The line “The world is made of bars” could represent the world as Rilke saw it. Technological innovation on the largest scale in human history was growing in all direction: iron cities, factories belching smoke, tenement houses filled with poverty and despair. Man might have created a marvel, but it is a prison, too: technology saves us work but it enslaves us. He then juxtaposes “bars” with the imagery of movement, “lithe swinging”, to show us what has been lost, what has been captured. And this evokes the imagery of a clock: a brass casing housing a living mechanism.
Finally there is a theatricality to it all when he uses the word “curtains”, as if it’s all a show and it’s all fake and it’s being run by someone we can’t see. It ends sinister, too with what feels like an assassin but it seems ambiguous as to what or whom is being killed: us or the panther? Is Rilke saying we are killing nature, or is this like a Jurassic Park metaphor where the panther will eventually escape because we are not smart enough to contain it forever?