By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ (1934) is one of Wallace Stevens’s finest nature poems, but it is also a celebration of the transformative power of art. But there’s a little more to the poem than this glib summary suggests. You can read ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
‘The Idea of Order at Key West’: summary
First, a brief summary: the speaker of the poem describes, in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, hearing a female singer sing a beautiful song at Key West, one of the Florida Keys. The woman’s song is so powerful it seems to merge with the sound of the ocean. When the singer leaves, the speaker and his friend, Ramon Fernandez, turn and leave.
The speaker observes that hearing the woman’s song has made him view things in a different way. Central to the poem is the idea of finding order, or at least an ‘idea of order’ (is that all it is, an idea, or even an illusion?), through the juxtaposition of the ocean and human song.
Consider how the poem begins by celebrating the singer’s voice over the sound of nature: it may be that she was channelling the very elements, the wind and water of the ocean and the air, but that is not what the poet thinks is important. The important thing is her voice, in itself, that held the speaker and his companion in thrall as they listened. The speaker goes on to describe the singer as the ‘maker’ of the song: again, human creation is celebrated over the creation of nature. The sea is merely a background for her performance.
In the poem’s third verse paragraph, beginning ‘If it was only the dark voice of the sea’, it seems that the speaker is about to contradict himself: now, suddenly, there was something ‘more than’ the singer’s voice. The important thing, the speaker seems to realise, is the intersection of sea, sky, and people; the song of the earth and human song and the coming-together of these two sounds.
And yet, returning to his original position, the singer is the most important figure in this equation: she is the catalyst, the sole maker or ‘artificer’ of her surroundings. More than this, she seems to give the sea its own identity, or sense of ‘self’.
As the poem ends, we realise that the singer has created a sense of order out of the wild elements of sea and sky around her; and, in turn, she has made the speaker see order in the lights of the fishing boats along the coast. Art, the poem seems to say, is man’s way of introducing order into the meaningless chaos of the elements.
‘The Idea of Order at Key West’: analysis
As Richard Allen Blessing observes in his brilliant study of Stevens, Wallace Stevens, Stevens connects with nature in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, but at the same time there is a sense of ‘poignancy’ at the poet’s ‘sense of loss of a meaningful relationship between himself and the natural world’.
The poem, as Blessing points out, is cast entirely in the past tense: the ‘idea of order’ that emerged from the singer’s music has not necessarily lasted. Stevens was changed by hearing it, but not permanently. Nothing is permanent. We must constantly seek to renew out connection with nature, through new experience, new epiphanies.
Blessing also suggests that we compare ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ with a great Romantic poem, John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: as in Keats’s poem from over a century earlier, Stevens’s perspective is transformed by hearing the beautiful song of nature.
Keats, hardly a poet who failed to be aware of the evanescence of all things, nevertheless celebrates the nightingale’s song, and the nightingale, as ‘immortal’, as ‘not born for death’. Stevens can offer, and experience, no such consolation. He is aware that everything passes: the singer must end her song, and Stevens must lose that insight into the world which her song brought about.
The sense of order or ‘idea of order’ in the poem is borne out by Stevens’s decision to repeat certain words – and even use the odd rhyming word – at the ends of lines. The poem starts without any rhyme: sea, voice, fluttering, motion, cry, understood … and then we get ocean rhyming with motion. In the next verse paragraph (we can’t really call them stanzas), she calls back to sea (prefiguring the merging of the two in one line at the end of this paragraph: ‘But it was she and not the sea we heard’).
Then sound sounds alone, but is followed by a cluster of closely rhymed words: heard, word, stirred, and heard, with only the wind – carrying both the singer’s voice and the sound of the ocean to the speaker’s ears – to come between them. The poem has its own music.
Indeed, we get sea at the end of six lines; sound or sounds at the end of three lines; wind at the end of two, knew at the end of two, and so on. It’s possible that Stevens is recalling that toughest of poetic forms, the sestina, in concentrating his meditation on the power of music and nature around a few key words, which end many of the lines of the poem. And this is just the ends of lines: we get other words, such as alone and sing/sang, repeated throughout the poem multiple times.
This lends Stevens’s poem the air of a musical symphony, and aligns his own ‘song’ as a poet with that produced by the singer. Tellingly, she is described as a ‘maker’, reminding us that the word poetry is from the ancient Greek meaning ‘to make’. A poet is a maker.
Just as Keats had told the nightingale that he will ‘fly to thee … on the viewless wings of Poesy’, so Stevens, in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, will ‘sing’ his own response to the music of the singer, and the harmonious music of nature with its idea of beautiful order.