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The Idea of Order at Key West

This version was saved 13 years, 7 months ago View current version     Page history
Saved by Jonah Queen
on September 25, 2008 at 3:43:50 pm
by Wallace Stevens (1954)

She 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,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.[1]

The sea was not a mask.  No more was she.[2]
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[3];
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

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
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.[4]
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, 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,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.[5]

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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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