The Millions

Eleven Ways of Looking at a Sunset

1.
Cotton Mather, third-generation New England Puritan divine, wrote in his 1721 pamphlet India Christiana that “we have now seen the Sun Rising in the West.” Mather’s conceit was allegorical, yet an aspect of poetry’s power is its refusal to let you forget the implications of the literal. In a fascinating bit of ecumenical consilience, an Islamic Hadith agrees with Mather that Judgment Day awaits for when “the sun rises from the West.” Both demand their hypotheticals. A westerly dawn, the blood-skied evening transposed to morning, would be such a strange sight that one wonders if the human mind would even be able to initially comprehend what was seen. An apocalypse of the subtle unexpected.

Mather’s vision inspired my dissertation and would dominate the better part of a decade for me. The western dawn was striking to me, so arresting, that my reasons for that academic work flowed from this origin (even if the process was far from uncomplicated). Justifications for what one studies are always personal, but from that one line I built a personal cottage industry of bringing up Mather in incongruous circumstances, a familiarity with the stodgy, pudgy, wig-bedecked Calvinist I wouldn’t have anticipated.

A dissertation is normally a method of working through some stuff. For me, among other things, I was working through sunsets. Technically I was writing about early modern representations of western migration, but I was really chasing the sun. Dusk feels like weight to me, when apprehension and beauty are comingled, an hour that prefigures death. I would cite Barbara Lewalski on Protestant poetics and Leo Marx on technology and the pastoral; Louise Martz on medieval traces in Renaissance lyrics, and Sacvan Bercovitch on Puritanism, but fundamentally all of that was just filler. I simply wanted a method to approach the dusk.

2.
I’ve not been particularly drawn to Jack Kerouac since high school: With maturity, that affection fades. Still, On the Road has some beautiful passages, such as Kerouac’s description of a southwestern sunset: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” Kerouac can be florid (what are these “Spanish mysteries?”), and he inserted four references to wine in just one sentence. There is

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Millions

The Millions12 min read
On Living Stories: Kristen Millares Young in Conversation with Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
The two authors talk about the intersections of community and the canon: “There must be space in literature for the multiplicity of human experiences.” The post On Living Stories: Kristen Millares Young in Conversation with Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
The Millions13 min read
Another Person’s Words: Poetry Is Always the Speaker
More than rhyme and meter, or any other formal aspect, what defines poetry is its self-awareness. Poetry is the language which knows that it’s language. The post Another Person’s Words: Poetry Is Always the Speaker appeared first on The Millions.
The Millions9 min read
Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ulitskaya, Phillips, Zentner, Savage, and More
Out this week: the journeys of a makeshift family in contemporary Appalachian Ohio, a new Russian epic, and the faux memoirs of a Bieber-ish pop star. The post Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ulitskaya, Phillips, Zentner, Savage, and More appeared