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The Idea of Order at Key West

Page history last edited by Alexandra Howard 15 years, 9 months ago
by Wallace Stevens (1954)

She[1] sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,[2]
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.[3]

The sea was not a mask.  No more was she.[4]
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard.
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind[5];
But it was she and not the sea we heard.[6]

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

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[7]
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.  But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.[8]
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez,[9] tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea[10],
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.[11]

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,[12]
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.[13]


  1. Diction is an interesting tool that can be used to entirely change meaning to a poem. Throughout the poem, stevens uses the word she to interchangeably refer to the woman as well as mother nature, It is interesting to notice the context surrounding "she" as the poem evolves. Stevens gives "her" a power beyond that of an ordinary human. She has many abilities that make her extraordinary except she is sad for some raason. The poem gives the impression that the speaker is estranged from this "she" whether it is an actual person or something more
  2. The repetition and continuing themes expressed in these first five lines are a good reflection of the enigma around which the poem is centered. The sea is given human characteristics such as "genius," but not means such as "mind or voice," which the singer has. The "body wholly body" with "empty sleeves" refer to an ambiguous antecedent; it is unclear whether this body (which does not fill up said sleeves) belongs to the singer or to the sea. "Mimic motion" and "constant cry" use alliteration to create a sort of echo effect; the sea and the singer are mimicking each other and evoke ongoing cries from each other.
  3. This poem is written in iambic pentameter. Which, according to the versification, means that the poem's subject is serious. Though, the pattern of iambic pentameter is not followed all throughout the poem. Some lines are less formal and stray from the original archetype.
  4. In the second stanza, all of the last words of each line, except for the first line, rhyme. "Heard, word, stirred and heard" again all use perfect rhyme with the continued use of the "ir/er/or" sound. Also "wind" ends one of the lines, which is a similar sounding and similar in form to "word." The use of rhyme in this stanza causes it to sound musical which the author may have done on purpose to link the form to the song the narrator is discussing.
  5. Wallace Stevens seems to prefer the use of personification to serve as imagery. This form of descriptive language helps to establish situation and setting in the poem. It almost seems as though the female in the poem sings and gives life to the gasping wind, grinding water, and the dark voice of the sea.
  6. Throughout this stanza there is rhyme as well as repitition. The rhyming throughout the stanza allows the poem to flow like a song. This flow of the poem can be mirrored with the flow of the ocean's water. The repitition of the words "heard" and "sang" indicates the importance of these words to the poem as a whole. Throughout this stanza there is also a lot of description displayed through adjectives and strong verbs. These words, that breathe life into the poem are as follows: medleyed, uttered, grinding, gasping.
  7. These lines use deep descriptions of nature as a source of reflection for the speaker. It definitely incorporates the return to nature and the pastoral as a reflective and healing process within this stanza. “The outer voice of sky” and “the sunken coral water-walled” in lines 23 and 24 along with the rest of the stanza demonstrate the changes and transition in the tone of the poem, which leads to a resolution and understanding in the later stanzas about the imagination and feelings expressed throughout the entire piece.
  8. Repetition is present throughout the whole poem, but it is especially noticeable in this stanza. The words "voice", "air", "summer", and "sound" are all repeated, adding to the comparison of the noises made by the ocean and the wind to a song and the personification of the ocean and wind. This is also illustrated by a change in the imagery. The ocean and wind are explicitly talking and singing, rather than a woman representing them like earlier in the poem.
  9. In this line, I felt a sort of break or transition from the rest of the poem. The speaker/poet abruptly interjects into the text and directly addresses the unknown person of "Ramon Fernandez." It is important to notice that the speaker asks questions such as "why?" and "when?" and seems to be very curious about the singing. This is the first time in the poem that we are brought into the present tense, a time that makes it seem as if the speaker is looking back on this event. The singing spirit/person is always referred to in the past, making this transition even more significant to the poem.
  10. This section is used to demonstrate how man continues to shape the world around him, beyond art. The words used, such as "mastered", "portioned", "fixing", "zones", and "arranging", show the civil engineering humans press upon the natural world. The human elements of lights "tilt the air" and "master the night", they "portion out the sea". The harbor packages the sea with boats and lights, bringing human order to the coast of Key West.
  11. The enjambment in this stanza (like in the previous ones) words to increase the pace of the poem . However, the caesura (or short pauses) signaled by the various commas slows down the poem. In this stanza, I feel that enjambment and caesura are working opposite as to reflect a bigger conflict. While enjambment works to speed up the pace, the caesura works in opposing direction to create pauses.
  12. In this metaphoric stanza, the poet employs synesthesia by using phrases such as "fragrant portals, dimly-starred." The poet uses quite a lot of synesthesia in this poem, refering heavily to the senses of sound, sight, and sometimes smell.
  13. This poem plays with words a lot. In fact, it explores a variety of verbal aspects by incorporating abundant alliterations, homonym-like words (she and sea), repetitions, rhyme schemes, unconventional syntax structures, and a lot of grammatical interrupters (but no run-on's). The poem begins by calling an attention to a song sang by she by the sea, with much focus placed on the "sound" that can be "heard." The poem, after long lines of somewhat non-logically arranged order of words (however grammatically correct they may be), ends with words "keener sounds." Together with the repetition of "vocal" words and the literal devices, both grammatical and poetic, the reader's focus easily shifts from the actual content of the poem to the auditory effect of this poem.

Comments (1)

nomeaku@... said

at 5:30 pm on Sep 28, 2008

The poem seems seems to have a simple idea that the author explains in a intricate and complex manner. It shifts back and forth between real and fantassy, and the subconcious and reality. The syntax and the order of the words and consistently played with and it seems that the poem is less about what the author says. Instead, it is more about what the emotion the poem evokes upon the reader.

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