The Idea Of Order At Key West

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WALLACE STEVENS (1936) The poetry of Wallace stevens often takes as its theme the question of human epistemology—the study of what we know and how we know it. This question is central to 20th-century poets, most particularly to the so-called high modernists (see modernism). "The Idea of Order at Key West" approaches this question by meditating on the problem of mimesis, or whether or not art can successfully imitate and represent reality. Above all the poem questions the relationship between human language and nature.

The poem is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), which is well suited to philosophical meditation, because it is the closest in rhythm and meter among traditional verse forms to natural English speech. The speaker of the poem begins by describing a woman walking along the shore of Florida's Key West and singing a song of the sea. But from the first line the speaker insists that the woman's song does not accurately represent the sea, because human sounds and language cannot imitate the nonhuman sounds and rhythms of the ocean. Her song contains words that seek to imitate the sea, but the sea remains alien and inscrutable.

Stevens proposes that because language is a human invention, attempts to represent the natural world through language are merely artifice, a type of deception through which humans attempt to organize and control what they cannot truly perceive or understand.

For all her attempts to reach out to the sea and commune with it, the singer finally and inevitably manages only a human impression of the sea.

The last two stanzas of the poem introduce an imagined interlocutor, whom the speaker questions. He asks why those walking along a quay, illuminated by the lights of boats in slips, perceive the sea to be divided in quadrants of light, as if the never-resting ocean could be so contained and organized. In answer, the speaker concludes that humans have a "rage for order," an uncontrollable desire to master and recreate the natural world in their own image and according to their own perceptions.

Although this need for order prevents human beings from reproducing the world of nature, Stevens calls the rage "Blessed." The singer's attempt to order the sea enables her to sing "beyond the genius of the sea"— that is, to transcend nature and become the maker of a world in sound and language that is uniquely human. As critic Harold Bloom writes, the poem is finally equivocal and ambivalent about the relationship between art and nature: It "affirms a transcendental poetic spirit yet cannot locate it, and . . . also remains uneasily wary about the veritable ocean" (104).


Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate.

Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976. Cook, Eleanor. Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace

Stevens. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Edwin J. Barton

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