Critics have warned readers against feeling personally addressed by the many commands in Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. The essay argues, through readings of imperative sonnets, that such critics are misguided: the poems do seek a reader's intimate and personal reception. Since the commands in question concern ethical stances and the self-knowledge of the addressed you, deflecting them from yourself as reader deflects the power of the aesthetic to make you change your life. The anxious strain in Rilke criticism is then related, through a reading of Rilke's poem “Snake-Charming,” to views of Rilke as an effeminate man. Male critics' warding gestures when confronted with Rilke's imperatives—the caution lest this seductive man touch us—resembles male homosexual panic, the alarm of men confronted with male desire. The essay's broader point concerns our vulnerability to literature and the part that vulnerability plays in literature's ethical force.
William Waters; Rilke's Imperatives. Poetics Today 1 December 2004; 25 (4): 711–730. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-25-4-711
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