The Idea of Order at Key West
by Wallace Stevens
The sea—sounds fun, right? Surfing, sand castles, suntans, snorkeling, seaweed (sorry, we're suckers for S sounds—love that alliteration!). In this poem, the sea represents the external world and is juxtaposed throughout the poem with the singer and the song. Remember, the singer represents the internal elements of creativity and imagination, the artist-poet.
Also, the sea functions as an extended metaphor for the artist's inspiration or muse (something external that inspires the imagination) and also for the natural world and reality. So, in one corner we have the artist and the work of art. In the other corner we have the muse, the inspiration.
In the end, the speaker's perception of the sea, of the natural world, of reality itself, becomes shaped (ordered) by the song, or art. The artist's internal perception (imagination) and external representation of the sea, of reality (the song), influence the speaker's perception of reality. He begins to see her sea, to experience the world through the artist's representation.
Yup, just like the sea, this stuff is deep.
What we ultimately have is a kind of unclearly marked division ("ghost[ly] demarcations") between the sea (natural world-inspiration-muse) and the singer (artist-art-imagination). Things seem to be separated, but then morph together and separate again, similar to the way Stevens' lines seem to fold in on themselves so that it is sometimes unclear what the subject of the line is (is it the sea, or the song, or she?).
- Lines 1-7: Steven's introduces this idea of the sea as inspiration in the very first line of the poem by using the word "genius" and referring to the spirit of something, much like the Greek idea of the muse as a spirit or goddess that brings inspiration to a poet or artist.
Stevens also introduces the idea of the sea as merely a part of the natural world in this first stanza. Sometimes the water is just the water—good ol' H2O (in this case with a bunch of salt, too).
The movement of the sea, the "mimic motion," makes a sound. But it also "caused constantly a cry." The ambiguity of this stanza's syntax makes it plausible that the cry that the sea "caused" is coming from someplace other than the sea.
The sea makes a sound, but also inspires the singer to make her own sound, acting as a kind of muse to the singer.
- Lines 8-14: In the beginning of stanza 2, Stevens reinforces the idea that the sea is the sea: a clear, concrete representation of the natural world. Here it's a symbol of reality. It is not trying to be something else (no masks). The sea is just hanging out being the sea.
The sound of the sea and the sound of the song are not mixed. They are separate elements. The sea is the external sound, separate and wholly different from the song (the outward manifestation of the internal imagination).
Muse sighting! It doesn't get much clearer than this. "What she sang was what she heard." Here, she is interpreting the sound of the sea.
(Spoiler alert, though: Unfortunately, Stevens doesn't let this sense of clarity linger very long. In the end, it isn't going to be as simple as the sea inspires the song.)
- Lines 16-17: The sea is presented again as simply the sea. Stevens is still working that extended metaphor, the sea representing the natural world/reality. In these lines he emphasizes that the sea is a place, a location. No more, no less.
Also, Stevens is making a distinction between the inspiration (the sea) and the song. The inspiration is not the art. It is merely the external reality. The art comes from the maker.
Lines 21-33: The sound of the sea is not enough to explain the song. The sound of the sea is "meaningless." The reality, the external world alone, is "sound alone."
Let's go back to our extended metaphor, shall we? If the sound of the sea lacks meaning, then it follows that reality, the natural world on its own, lacks meaning. Bummer!
If the singer was simply mimicking the sound of the sea, of reality, the song would have been meaningless. But the song was "more than" the sound alone.
Therefore, reality on its own has no meaning. It takes the artist to comprehend, to complete, the natural world.
- Lines 38-43: When the singer sings, the sea, the natural world/reality, becomes that which she creates. She creates the world-reality through her song. She gives meaning, order, to the natural world through her song.
The sea, the external, natural world (reality) is created, made, by her. The world is incomplete without the internal world of the human mind and imagination.
- Line 49: Even after the song ends, the speaker's perception of the sea, of reality, has changed. The sea is portioned, visually divided into "zones." Art (internal perception) has affected the speaker's perception of the sea, the external world, reality.
- Line 53: The "maker" (the singer-artist-poet) intensely wants to express the sea—the natural world, reality—in order to give meaning and order to the universe. It's like Stevens is saying that the sea has words, but without the poet the words are just an unintelligible jumble (kind of like that presentation we tried to give in speech class when we were super-nervous).
The natural world relies on the poet-artist to give it intelligible meaning. The external is a product of the internal. The sea relies on the singer to provide meaning, order, for its words.