Can someone provide a critical appreciation of the poem "The Idea of Order at Key West" by Wallace Stevens?

1 Answer | Add Yours

msmcgarron's profile pic

msmcgarron | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

Wallace Stevens was a poet who often based his poems on events and places that were familiar to him, however, he generally omits references to his professional life, preferring to theorise on aspects of existence. His 'raison d'etre' as a poet was trying to rationalise reality through language; whether the world around us is merely what it seems and how much it is influenced by our perceptions. He has been criticised for his 'limited intellectual dimensions' (Pinkerton, 579) with some critics suggesting that this attempt at rationalisation was naive and superficial. However, in his exploration of how language influences us and our perceptions of our surroundings, it seems that his professional and personal background is quite significant in this poem.

'The Idea of Order at Key West' was written in 1934, a mere five years after the Wall Street Crash. Coming from an upper-middle class background, having attended Harvard and having spent his working life as an insurance executive, Stevens' was as far from poverty as he could be. The focus of this poem, the meditating mind, is interesting in this context. It can be seen as idealistic and focusing on the aesthetic, providing a somewhat sterile view of the world and refusing to include any palpable humanity. Interestingly, in the poem 'The Old Woman and the Statue' Stevens suggests that a destitute, old woman's presence soils the magnificence of a statue. Perhaps the 'blessed rage for order' refers to the contemporary focus on left wing politics, something with which the Republican Stevens hoped was a 'rage' or a fashion. Perhaps it refers to his unhappiness with what had happened. Perhaps this word may refer to Stevens' passionate need to perfect the way a person may meditate on, and therefore practice, their own thoughts and actions.

Despite Stevens' sympathy with right wing politics in the 1930s, he rejects extremism. He refers to Ramon Fernandez, who he suggested was 'not intended to be anyone at all' but who was a French critic and fascist. Stevens, in his desire for order, appears to be tauntingly critical of Fernandez and so the extremist categorising into good and bad, black or white. Rather we must remember that despite Stevens' privilege he was an artist and concerned with the layered meaning in life, both the aesthetic and the emotional, without rejecting on or the other. These features of our existence are nothing without the other, in the same way that the woman's song in the poem is nothing without an interlocutor.


In 'The Idea for Order' Stevens' references to nature are imbued with a sense of the contrast between beauty and terror. Yet everything is there for a reason; each element reliant on the next. The sea and the wind are irregular and varied, while being repetative and on some levels, predictable. The idea that there is 'order' in  nature suggests that our surroundings are stable; ever changing yet permanent. This stability provides the opportunity for individual interpretation so that art, writing and creativity can produce varied results yet each piece has its own merits.

Instead of suggesting that nature is random and disordered, Stevens implies that nature is honest, transparent and although each wave of the sea is different from the last, its stability provides him with a platform on which to analyse his ideas about what constitutes order, for him.

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,915 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question