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  • Stevens’s High Sentence for the End Time
  • Justin Quinn


THE WORLD HAS ALWAYS been ending. This ever-imminent finality turns our gaze periodically beyond particular communities— national, ethnic, or religious—to consider the world as such, or as a whole. Culture has helped us in this work—telling stories, providing images, alarming us, consoling us, informing us, misleading us—and its figurations are useful as much for politics as for the spiritual preparation they offer as we consider the extinction of our own species and a lot of others. The Anthropocene period is perhaps different in that humanity itself appears to be the main trigger of global destruction, although human proximity to the cause does not necessarily facilitate understanding; many humans find it difficult to face the global consequences of their actions, because the temporal and spatial scales are too vast, and culture tends to be produced and consumed in more restricted environments. Now, however, culture is learning to respond in new global terms that might help us, and, along with it, poetry criticism.

But who is that “us” which confronts those issues? What kind of group faces the end of the world? Are we just individuals? Are we gathered in nations? Or other kinds of community? Because many critics are trained in a particular linguistic or national tradition, they try to answer this question within such a framework. For instance, Margaret Ronda, in her Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End (2018), uses a national framework to understand poetry after World War II (“American” in her title does not refer to the continent but to the United States). Another work that makes a similar maneuver is Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (2008). While such national criticism is important, it is ultimately insufficient. After all, the crisis is global. The “us”—or community—that faces the crisis is the human population of the entire world. So we may need to start reading culture in more “worldly” terms, even though we may worry whether it is possible to posit, once again, the idea of universal address. Can we, for example, imagine a poem addressing readers globally? Can we imagine a poetry that figures the community of the entire earth as its audience? Is there a [End Page 10] culture, a possible world culture, that meets our gaze at such moments? Do we have cultural works that address the world?

Theories of world literature and transnationalism may be of help, as they examine the speeds and patterns of literature as it circulates around the globe. They also alert us to the difficulties of such journeys, reminding us how a work or a writer, much prized within one culture, may not be viable in others. In what follows, I will argue that Wallace Stevens convokes a global audience, offering a kind of literature—which has been identified pejoratively as “high sentence”—that may be of help as we experience the end of the world, again. Such an “offer,” however, does not imply acceptance. Thus, as well as making a case for Stevens, in at least one mode, as an author for the Anthropocene, I will also outline some of the obstacles in the way.


What will we see when the end comes? Perhaps something like this:

  the whiteness folded into less,Like many robings, as moving masses are,

As a moving mountain is, moving through dayAnd night, colored from distances, centralWhere luminous agitations come to rest,

In an ever-changing, calmest unity,The unique composure, harshest streakings joinedIn a vanishing-vanished violet that wraps round

The giant body the meanings of its folds,The weaving and the crinkling and the vex,As on water of an afternoon in the wind

After the wind has passed.

(CPP 372)

Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” figured this as the sight that met his friend Henry Church, who had recently died. The scene is striking for its conflations of fabrics and geological features. The “robings” are a vehicle for a vague tenor, for instance, and they, then, turn tenor to the vehicle of...


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