The Idea of Order at Key West Summary
by Wallace Stevens

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Idea of Order at Key West” is a discursive poem reflecting upon the work of the imagination and the relationship between the real and the imagined worlds. The poem’s form is iambic pentameter with some irregular end rhymes. It begins with an unidentified woman singing beside the sea: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.” “She” is the imagination, and her voice does not change the reality it represents: “The water never formed to mind or voice.” These two, then, woman and water, mind and world, are separate. Yet it would seem that reality, too, has some sort of guiding principle or spirit, a “genius.” Her song does not change or “form” reality, which has its own inhuman “cry.”

The second section of the poem reiterates and redefines the separation between the two: The water’s sound is reflected in her song, but “it was she and not the sea we heard.” She is singing in words; reality speaks its own language, that of “the grinding water and the gasping wind.”

She is the “maker,” and the sea is merely “a place by which she walked to sing.” The listeners ask, “Whose spirit is this?” They wish to know what, or who, this secret voice, the imagination that is at the center of human nature, is. The answer is that the voice is not merely reality, “the dark voice of the sea,” for if it were, the human listeners would not understand it; “it would have been deep air.” Nor is the sound only humans’ readings of reality, “her voice, and ours, among/ The meaningless plungings of water and the wind.” Rather, her voice is the human understanding of the real—the only entrance point to it. The imagination is neither mind nor world but an act of perception that is also a blending point:

She was the single artificer of the worldIn which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,Whatever self it had, became the selfThat was her song, for she was the maker.

Neither embroidery nor simple reflection, the imagination becomes a force that penetrates and incorporates.

The last two sections are addressed to “Ramon Fernandez.” Stevens insisted that Ramon Fernandez was simply a made-up name and was not an allusion to the French critic by that name who was then popular, but because Stevens owned books by Fernandez, one might perhaps discount that claim. In any case, the speaker asks Fernandez (if the critic, an analyst of the imagination and its products) why the song, once ended, has reordered the world. Leaving the sea, the speaker turns back to the town and sees that the “lights in the fishing boats at anchor there” have “mastered the night and portioned out the sea,/ Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles.” Reality has been changed by the “lights”—imagery suggesting consciousness/imagination—to something of intense and personal meaning.

The concluding five lines reach an emotional pitch seldom found in Stevens’s work, as he defines the impulse of the artist/maker as a “blessed rage for order.” Creative perception is necessary; it is “blessed.” It is an internal imperative; it is a “rage.” Moreover, it is not reality that is being ordered, finally, but words: “The maker’s rage to order words of the sea.” This self-defined goal is also a destiny. The words are of the “fragrant portals, dimly-starred,” suggesting a mystic birth; they are “of ourselves and of our origins.” As the definitions become more spiritual or mythic (“ghostlier demarcations”), the poetry, too, becomes more acute (“keener sounds”). The end of this poem may suggest that humankind’s deepest, most spiritual need is for the imaginative, and that, moreover, there is a point at which mythmaking becomes discovery.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The speaker of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” one of Wallace Stevens ’s most anthologized poems, says that his thoughts have been inspired by a woman who is singing a song she has composed. She sings as she walks by the sea. In the penultimate stanza, the speaker...

(The entire section is 4,057 words.)