Treasure Island

Wallace Stevens

(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955 / Pennsylvania / United States)

The Idea of Order at Key West


She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
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  • Andrew Burant (10/22/2009 10:17:00 PM)

    The Idea of Order at Key West
    Andrew Burant

    Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” focuses on the perception of imagination and reality. In this poem, reality pertains to the totality of all things possessing actuality, existence or essence; imagination, on the other hand, captures and interprets reality so an individual is able to create their own meaning of the given world, and escape the facts of existence through their own sense of creativity and ingenuity. At the beginning of the poem the speaker seeks an answer to whether the song exists through an external reality or within his ability to formulate this into something personal. Throughout his walk the speaker never truly determines whether the song is an external reality or within his own imagination, Stevens proposes that the song is neither, since one is not able to exist without the other. Near the end of the poem, the speaker muses upon the woman’s song and determines that she is both of song and sea, thus his enjoyment is derived out of a fusion of his imagination interpreting the voice along with an external awareness of his surrounding reality. Above all, Stevens captures and portrays this theme through his understanding of the human condition which perceives the inhuman as human.

    Throughout “The Idea of Order at Key West” the narrator seemingly attempts to distinguish whether the song he hears is the sea’s waves singing to the woman’s voice, or if the singer’s tune is his imagination’s perception of the ocean. To answer this question, Stevens suggest that the narrator must investigate and recognize the difference between imagination and reality. Since the sea is an external nature which causes a meaningless “constant cry” (5) and can not be “formed to mind or voice” (2) , the narrator must distinguish the ocean’s image and counterpart through the singer. Likewise, her ability to utter the sound of the waves “word by word” (11) helps to transform the inhuman song of the sea into the entirely human song of the woman. Moreover, as the singer measures and interprets her song; the ocean similarly analyzes and follows the laws of nature.

    As the speaker begins to perceive that the song is more than the sea merely singing through the woman’s voice, he begins to feel a sense of ineffability which goes beyond the mere language of the tune and experience of his walk. Thus in stanza twenty eight he states: “But it was more than that, more even than her voice, and ours” (28) the narrator begins to accept the mystery behind the song’s blissfulness and acquires the tune as the driving spirit of all the external realities in his presence. This realization of the song’s ineffability makes “the sky acutest at its vanishing” (35) and “measured to the hour at its solitude” (36) . For Stevens, these acts of interpretation are essentially human acts which help people come in touch with themselves and the world around them in order to experience the joys of being one with both themselves and nature.
    Within the final lines of the poem Wallace Stevens’ links the title by connecting with and relating to our desire for ordered experiences and sympathizes among us since we always try to make the inhuman human. Thus at the ending of this poem, the woman’s song guides the narrator and helps to clear the vision between the order which humans seek of the natural world: “O! Blessed rage for order” (52) . Likewise this cognizance opens “fragrant portals” (54) . The “fragrant portals” are important because they open a new door to an edifying new self-awareness. Moreover, as narrator begins to apprehend the message of the woman’s song, he realizes that the song allowed him to see order in the world. Additionally, the song produces from within him a desire to create his own song, in order to interact and correspond with the imagination of others just like woman has done to his.

    Stevens’ understanding of the human condition serves a great purpose in “The Idea of Order at Key West”. Stevens portrays the narrator’s experiences through the reflection of his thoughts. When the voice comes along he begins to change his way of thinking because she helps him understand and become conscious of the illusion of his imagination. Through the language of “The Idea of Order at Key West” Wallace Stevens expresses his perception of the world. His thoughts and language become his instruments that craft the poem. Through the readers of the poem, Stevens captures and engages them: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (Oscar Wilde) as the spectator mirrors this form of art and interprets meaning into the work’s allurement, they becoming cultivated and enlightened. As a poet, Wallace Stevens believed that poetry should be similar to a work of art. And like a work of art, Stevens’ poetry helps his readers discover order in a chaotic world. (Report) Reply

  • James Niles (4/19/2008 11:35:00 PM)

    The 'S', hissing 'S'
    a susurration of sound,
    sinister, soulful

    sinful, satisfied,
    seeping in slowly surreal
    sacred and sublime (Report) Reply

  • Tony Best (10/6/2007 7:51:00 PM)

    I love this poem. Its about the imagination versus reality. How the imagination gives one a sense of order against the pressures of reality. (Report) Reply

  • Beverly Nelms (9/22/2007 3:09:00 PM)

    I always feel as though I am on the verge of understanding this poem.
    It captured me when I first read it. And reread it.
    It is more like a force to me than a poem. It contains much of what it is to be human, and implied questions about art - is art to define the person making or performing the art and hand that definition to the audience, or is it a way to bring order to the chaos around us, as the singer and the masts brought order to the sea.
    Here's to hoping I never fully understand this poem. It's a touch of chaos and order. (Report) Reply

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