Revealing the presence of order in “The Idea of Order at Key West”
“The Idea of Order at Key West” was written by Wallace Stevens, a ‘transcendentalist’ in the modernism era. Steven’s poetry reflected works similar to those of Whitman and Wordsworth in that he loved writing on concepts of the natural world to help discover and create personal meaning. Stevens often took vacations to Florida where the serenity of peace and beauty inspired him to write and reflect on deeper philosophical issues such as natural order, chaos, and the deep internal desires of the self (Morse 140). “The Idea of Order at Key West” emphasizes the internal longing to create meaning for order within the natural world, and to discover the role of man’s origin and the self’s purpose. However, in order for such meaning to be made obvious over the chaos, the order at Key West can only be clearly revealed when the beauty and chaos of nature is combined with the role of the poem’s female individual. The poem’s argues that order can be found and already exists among the chaos of nature, but that it takes the individual’s artistic craft to create meaning to make the order’s presence known and evident to the rest of the townsfolk and society.
The first stanza of “The Idea of Order at Key West” introduces two central figures which are used to reveal the poem’s meaning and existence of order: the sea and she. Both of these objects work independently of one another, yet also close together, and require attentiveness to the poem’s themes of imagery and sound so that order can be revealed (Bloom 62). Stanzas one, two, and four, contain descriptive sea imagery which can help one decipher the existence of order within the sea’s chaos. Order within the sea can be seen, but it is primarily masked by Steven’s raw depictions of turmoil, such as “the grinding waters and the gasping wind” (13). Despite this chaotic imagery, the poem goes on to reveal that the sea maintains a powerful consistency of order in that its “waters never formed to mind or voice” but rather remained consistent of that which it was and whose “mimic motion… caused constantly a cry” (2,5). Further support for this existence of order can be read within the opening verse of stanza one, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). Here the language implies that despite the sea’s potential to possess upwellings of turmoil, the sea also possesses ‘genius’, an underlining potential to overcome chaos to regulate life and diversity. Thus the waters of Key West possess both potential for natural chaos as well as order. According to stanza four, these waters can be ‘walled’ with ‘sunken coral,’ and ‘colored by many waves;’ yet due to geographical demarcation along the equator, can also possess a ‘dark voice’ for trouble such as death among species and seasonal abiotic catastrophes. The presence of order can be seen overall within the context of the sea; however, it is and continues to remain unstable because it is constantly undergoing interaction and change. This makes the order difficult to initially discover.
Robert Pack reinforces this idea that the natural world cannot exist without the presence of both order and disorder because “these two things are one” (Pack 130). These two elements must work together to create natural change, and consisted of “Steven’s definition of the world in which we live” (Pack 131). Through “order becoming disorder and disorder becoming order,” the two elements make up a cycle which changes over the course of time (Pack 131). In “The Idea of Order at Key West”, however, Stevens portrayed the townsfolk as failures to recognize that order could be found within natural chaos. Rather than looking for order’s presence in an underlining cyclical concept, the townsfolk’s perception of order’s existence was based dependently upon that which was visibly evident in the experience of the present moment. Thus, this created the need for the role of the female individual.
Throughout the poem, the role of the individual, referred to as ‘She,’ is used to communicate the presence of order among the chaos. This is done through the act of the girl’s song, which breaks the townsfolk’s rational perception of order in that moment, and causes others to stop and ‘listen.’ Without the role of this individual, the townsfolk would continue to lack understanding on the presence of order and its meaning. Steven’s verse “She sang beyond the genius of the sea,” implies that the nature of the song itself contained a unique element which transcended any perspective of chaos and/or beauty that the townsfolk had previously known or experienced (Stevens 1). The simple and structuralized beauty of the art of the song altered the townsfolk’s previous perception on order’s existence around them (Bloom 62); it became captivating and mysterious causing all to stop, and listen:
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. (Stevens 14-17)
The art (order) of the girl’s song was internally and naturally created within the individual’s self, which when sung, enchanted, deepened and transcended the meaning of order in that moment and allowed others to discover and interpret its origin in a different light.
The order within the art of the girl’s song contained a unique state of ‘unnatural,’ pure order which gave the song’s meaning and words a form of structure. This structure was beautifully arranged and impacted the townsfolk listeners as well as created an internal desire and passion within the listeners to want to pursue the presence of this order more:
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind…
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. (Stevens 29-30, 37-40)
Unlike the sea, a state of nature that possesses the cyclical relationship between both order and chaos, the art of the song possesses a ‘pure’ state of order which overpowers and sings “beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). The presence of chaos within this order ceases to exist, and therefore makes the order of the song truly pure and unique to the individual, and unnatural among the understanding of the listeners. Because of this, the listeners, for the first time, are able to both see and hear what order consists of in its purest state despite the disorder of the natural chaos of the sea.
Throughout the song and upon the time that the song of the individual comes to an end, the listeners are overtaken with feelings of awe and contemplation regarding the nature of this unnatural order’s origin. This can be seen in stanzas three and six where the townsfolk ask:
Whose spirit is this? (Stevens 18)
…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. (Stevens 44-51)
The order created by the structure of the song impacted the listeners to a point of meaning that transcended their original perception of order’s existence. Not only did this captivate their attention, but it also activated an internal desire which caused them to look for and seek out the meaning of order around them, “in the town” and in the night, in a new, ‘deepening,’ and ‘enchanting’ way (Stevens 48).
The poet closes with the following verses:
Oh! Blessed rage for order…
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
…And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. (Stevens 52-55)
Here, the poet acknowledges that a ‘blessed rage for order’ is required in life for meaning to be created. The only thing that can do this, however, is an unnatural form of order, disconnected from chaos and nature, which is uniquely pure and originates from the human inner self. Such was the influence produced by the song of the girl at Key West, and remains a unique element, which alongside the use of visual interpretation and the incorporation of keener sounds, allows man to make meaning to share with and/or to inspire others.
Meaning for order consists of more than what is made obvious in the present, but in order for it to be clearly revealed, one has to intently pursue it and/or interpret its meaning through another element. This is expressed in the role of the female individual, and is what Steven’s made evident when one listens for the presence of order within the artistic nature of the girl’s song.
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers. 2003. Print. p. 59-64.
Morse, Samuel. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasua. 1970. Print. p.140.
Pack, Robert. Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought. New York: Gordian Press. 1968. Print. p.130-131 and 175-176.
Katharine Sell is a 3rd year student majoring in Biology focused in coral reef ecology and marine organisms. She enjoys writing in her spare time. She loved exploring ‘meaning’ in “The Idea of Order at Key West” in correlation to her passions for people and all that the sea possesses.