The Idea of Order at Key West

Wallace Stevens

‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ by Wallace Stevens describes the tension between an interior and exterior life and the role of artist or maker. 


Wallace Stevens

Nationality: American

Wallace Stevens was a modernist American poet born in October 1879.

For most of his career, he worked at an insurance company in Connecticut.

The Idea of Order at Key West’ by Wallace Stevens is a six stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. Stevens wrote this piece in blank verse, a very common verse form. This means that the lines are structured without a rhyme scheme but within the pattern of iambic pentameter. Although there are some moments of variation, the lines generally contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. 

The moments that the pattern diverges often result in trochees in which the first beat is stressed, or even in lines containing only two or three sets of beats. These moments are very strategic. They are used to draw attention to those particular lines auditorily or visually and the content they present. 

The Idea of Order at Key West by Wallace Stevens

Setting and Repetition 

One of the most important elements of this piece is the setting. A reader should take note of the coming together of elements that occur on a seashore. There is a breaking of boundaries that mimics the larger content the text is concerned with.

Additionally, alliteration and repetition are present in the text. There are a number of words, such as “sea,” ”she,” “sound” and “song,” which are repeated throughout the poem. For instance, “sea” appears eight times, often closely connected with “she.” The “s” sounds very clearly mimic the sounds of the sea, a key feature of alliteration. The most prominent line in which this occurs is line five, stanza one: “Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry”. You can read the full poem here and more poetry from Wallace Stevens here.

Summary of The Idea of Order at Key West

The Idea of Order at Key West’ by Wallace Stevens describes the tension between an interior and exterior life and the role of artist or maker. 

Stanzas One to Three

The poem begins with the speaker giving the reader information about the setting. He is on a beach in Key West, Florida, and musing on the song of a woman singing alongside him. She is walking back and forth, sparking the speaker’s interest in where inspiration comes from. The woman is consistently placed against the sea as if the two are fighting for primacy in the speaker’s perception of the world. He is debating over whether it is the sea that provides the inspiration, or the singer who determines one’s opinion of the sea. 

He is clear in his belittling of the sea’s role. The speaker seems to interpret the sea as being a side product of the singer’s creation. There is a large difference between the song the singer is creating and that which is produced by the sounds of the sea. The lack of unification shows that she is not taking her cues from the sea, they must come from inside her.

Stanzas Four to Six

The speaker emphasizes the sea’s inability to control its own sounds. It has no higher reasoning, just a base spirit that exists without a body. He reiterates again that the woman is the “artificer” or creator of the world. As she sings, the sea becomes real. They are in a loop that is at once confusing, overwhelming, and beautiful. 

In the final lines, the speaker turns to a listener named “Ramon Fernandez.” This person has never been fully fleshed out, but it is most likely there to serve as a personalizing element to the very vague and ephemeral description of the interior and exterior life. 

The poem concludes with the speaker making an impassioned plea for the ordering of the sea, and the larger world. The singer or artist or maker is presented as a way into understanding larger truths about life. Their ability to shift one’s perspective is incredibly important to the speaker. 

Analysis of The Idea of Order at Key West 

Stanza One

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

Within the first lines of this piece, and the information provided in the title, a reader is able to discern the setting. The poem is placed by the sea, on the island of Key West in Florida. From the start, Stevens presents the reader with images that are hard to pin down. He speaks on how an unnamed character, “She,” is able to sing beyond the “genius” or spirit of the sea. The woman, through her song, goes into the interior of the sea and surpasses its essence or the inspiration it could produce in others. 

The last lines appear, at least at the outset, clearer. The speaker is describing how the sea does not have a “mind or voice.” It also does not function within a body. It is only the essence or spirit, that which the woman already surpassed. Stevens tries to clear up the description by adding that the sea is like someone’s empty sleeves “fluttering” in the wind. It seems like there might be something inside, but there is nothing. 

Although the sea is unable to speak, it can make a sound. It makes a “constant cry.” Due to its lack of “mind” there is no definition to the sound, only a guttural, base noise. Its noise, in turn, causes another “cry.” It is an “Inhuman” sound, meaning it did not come from the listener but out of the “veritable” or true, ocean. It is in the last two lines of this stanza that the speaker uses the plural pronoun “we,” which means that he is including himself in the narrative, as well as those listening.

Stanza Two

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Wallace makes use of both alliteration and juxtaposition in the lines of this stanza. The comparison between the words “sea” and “she” is quite clear in the first line. He speaks of the sea as not being “a mask” it hides nothing, nor does the woman mentioned in the first stanza.

He goes on to say that the sound of the woman’s singing and that of the water are not unified. They do not come together into a medley. This would be the case no matter what the woman did, even if she did try to mimic the sound of the sea. They are different on purpose. 

The speaker extends their difference by stipulating that maybe, it was the sound of the woman’s singing which “stirred” the image of the sea. It was not the “sea we heard,” but the song. 

Stanza Three

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

The third stanza of ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ begins with the speaker describing how “she” was the creator of the song “she sang.” It originated from within her, and the sea is only a “place by which she walked.” The sea is very interestingly described as being “ever-hooded,” perhaps a reference to the shape of the waves, and “tragic-gestured.” 

The second phrase speaks on the nature of the sea, as it is always driven towards tragedy or some kind of sadness. The description is true to the tone and adds to the already depressive image of the sea as empty shirt sleeves. 

In these lines, it is interesting to note how the sea is treated as something of little importance. Stevens makes it clear that the woman did not gain any significant inspiration from the sea, nor does she have any desire to mimic its sounds. The speaker returns to the idea of a “spirit” of the sea in the fourth line. 

He relays the question “We” asked, “Whose spirit is this?” The question was raised, but not as often as it should’ve been. It is the “spirit” that the speaker and his undefined “we” are seeking and he sees the song as an access point to that spirit. Stevens is presenting an interesting conundrum that asks where inspiration comes from, the artist (or singer) or the sea. 

Stanza Four

Lines 1-13

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

The fourth stanza speaks again on the base nature of the sea. It does not have the same ability an artist does to craft a song with purpose. Instead it “heav[es]” out sound that some take to be a song. He presents a number of possibilities in the first lines, all of which are dismissed. 

No matter if the song was the “dark voice of the sea” or even the “outer voice of sky” it would still only be “deep air.” It is a slight change in the air that is repeated: “in a summer without end.” The sound has no variation. It will always be the same—days and days of an endless summer. 

In contrast to the song of the sea is “her voice” and “ours.” These two sounds stand out against the “meaningless,” mindless, “plungings” of the sea. “We” have a meaning separate from our physical bodies. This is different than the sea, which is without meaning on its own terms. It is “theatrical” rather than real. It’s also “heaped” up with shadow as if it is working to be something it is not. 

Lines 14-23

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

The stanza continues on with another short line, “It was her voice that made.” Just like the proceeding line, “Of sky and sea,” it is short for a reason. The cut length of the lines draws one’s attention, and adds importance to the idea of her “voice” making the “sky acutest.” The speaker’s image of the world is being changed by the singer’s voice. She is in a way crafting the song and the world. Her voice draws one’s attention to the horizon line.

The stanza concludes with seven more lines that describe how the woman is the “artificer” or creator of the world. This creates a type of loop. She is at once singing about the sea and creating it. This speaks to the same question of where inspiration comes from— the interior or the exterior. 

Stanza Five

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

The fifth stanza takes a turn with the introduction of a specific listener, “Ramon Fernandez.” The character of Ramon serves one main purpose, to give the poem a more personal feel. It is now applying to two specific people, the speaker, and the listener. It helps narrow down the vague images, that make up most of the poem, into something clearer. 

The speaker asks Ramon to tell him why they “turned /  Toward the town” when the singing ended. The town is likely Key West, as mentioned in the title. The night has come and the lights which were once clearly attached to boats seem to float and “tilt” with the sea. There are lights out into the distance. This creates a feeling of separation, the sea and land are divided up. This is a way of structuring the scene. It orders what the speaker is seeing and the reader is able to interpret. 

Stanza Six

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

The sixth stanza is much less controlled than those which came previously. It begins with an exclamation. The speaker feels a passion for the ordering of the sea and its elements. It is done through the words of a song. These words are like “fragrant portal,” perhaps natural doorways, or those filled with flowers. 

The final lines describe the nature of these words as being ephemeral. It is impossible to pin them down and fully understand them. The bits of information one can interpret reveal something about one’s inner life and “our origins.” This speaks to the importance of the poet/singer/artist and their role in interpreting and spreading songs of the world. Those who listen are forever changed by the words they hear. Perceptions shift and one’s outlook on what is important is altered.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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