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15 november 2015

Desmond Morris includes a dozen chapters in Leopard on leopards in art and culture, in society, even in nature, but has nothing on the leopard in literature.

This is a missed opportunity. Leopards are not common in literature (in Western literature at least), but when they do appear, it's memorable. One of the greatest of all Italian novels is Il gattopardo (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, though admittedly there isn't much in it about leopards.

Shakespeare is not crucially fond of leopards, but they add some texture to memorable moments in his plays. Most famously, the soldier in Jaques' seven ages of man in As You Like It is

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard
– even though the leopard's beard is not one of its more iconic attributes. A "pard" is one of the "vile things" that Oberon advises the drugged Titania to wake up and love in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Elsewhere in Shakespeare, leopards are noted for their savagery or their spots, but always play second banana to the king of cats. When the angry Lord Mowbray is about to duel with Bullingbrook, Richard II (whose emblem is of course the lion) tells him, majestically and overreachingly:
Give me his gage: lions make leopards tame.
By contrast, the "Libbard" appears only once in Milton's Paradise Lost. But it is the very first creature that Dante encounters in the "selva oscura" in the first canto of the Inferno:
una lonza leggera e presta molto,
che di pel macolato era coverta

[a panther, limber and quick,
covered with its spotted hide]
All the more mysterious for being WTF, leopards in medieval Italy?

As Morris reminds us, the pard, the leopard, and the panther are all the same animal (even black panthers being just melanistic individuals of the same species as the familiar spotted leopard). And that being the case, the greatest short poem in the German language is about a leopard: Rainer Maria Rilke's "Der Panther."

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.

[Power in his pace, soft footfalls, sinous,
turning in narrower and narrower circles –
it's like Strength itself dancing around a center
where a great will stands fixed and spellbound.]
Into just a few lines, Rilke condenses many of the observations Morris makes about leopards, represented and real. They are paradoxes (to us) of savagery mixed with silence, litheness mixed with strength, docility mixed with rage.

They're just themselves, like any creature, but as Morris notes, odder than many. Biddable without ever really becoming tame, a presence in many modern tropical cities but for the most part unseen (because nocturnal and frankly damn sneaky), with the reputation of maneaters but in the wild mostly just opportunists who will eat mice if nothing else is going.

Anyway, if you want to read about leopards in prehistory, tribal cultures, murder cults, big-game hunting, attacks on humans, symbolism, decorative arts, fine art, the circus, as pets, in the wild, or as the focus of conservation efforts, get Leopard, a fine entry in the Reaktion Animal series. But mentally append something like the above on "Leopards in Literature."

Morris, Desmond. Leopard. London: Reaktion, 2014.