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The Idea of Order at Key West

The Idea of Order at Key West


by Wallace Stevens

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.

  • The poem's first line is important because, along with the title, it gives us a setting. With Key West in the title and the mention of "the sea" we get a pretty clear picture of a woman singing at the seashore
  • The speaker describes how she sang: "beyond the genius of the sea." Um… what? This is the first of what will be many what is Wallace talking about? moments. Get used to it. Embrace it. It isn't going to stop.
  • Let's start by considering the word "genius." Sure, we're used to being described as geniuses ourselves, but the sea? In what sense is the sea so smart? What did the sea score on the SATs, huh? Well, before you get all puffy-chested and competitive, let's look at some alternative meanings of the word genius.
  • Besides describing someone that is wicked smart, genius can refer to spirit. In Roman mythology, for example, genius referred to the guardian spirit of a person or a place. The spirit is the internal—kind of like the soul of the place as opposed to the external body of it.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open for more of this internal-external stuff. There's more to come.
  • Now, if the word genius gets us to the idea of spirit, spirit gets us to the idea of a muse. Chances are, Wallace wanted us to end up here. A muse is inspiration, a kind of guiding spirit for artists (especially poets). 
  • So, line one is basically saying that the singer sang beyond (passed the power or grasp of) the spirit or inspiration of the sea. See! No problem! One line down, fifty-five to go. If you want to have a cry, this would be a good time. But take heart! Shoomp is with you.

Lines 2-5

The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,

  • "The water," the sea, doesn't have a brain or the ability to speak. If this reminds you of your last date, we're sorry.
  • The sea is, in a sense, incomplete. It is all spirit, no body.
  • Stevens uses a simile next: the sea is, "like a body wholly body." In other words, the sea is incomplete just like a body lacking a soul is incomplete.
  • Wait. Did you read wholly as holy? Those darn homonyms. Stevens should be more careful! But wait. Holy cow! What if Stevens meant for us to at least think about holy when he wrote wholly. Holy body. Holy spirit. It could be that we have some religious stuff happening here. Stevens wanted all these religious ideas and images rattling around in your head while you read the poem. Stick a pin in it for now. It seems like we might visit this again.
  • Stevens describes the sea, "fluttering / its empty sleeves." The word fluttering along with sleeves, in the context of our seashore setting, brings to mind the movement of fabric in the wind—the "empty sleeves" appear alive, they "mimic [the] motion" of life, but it is only an illusion. There is nothing inside the sleeves but air.
  • When we combine this image of the empty, fluttering sleeves with all this talk of spirit as opposed to body, what else do we get? Casper anyone? The image of a fluttering ghost might also come to mind—all spirit, no body, floating around mimicking the living.
  • Also, the sea's, "mimic motion / Made constant cry." Keep it down, would ya? People are trying to study here! Sheesh. We thought Stevens told us in the first line that the sea had no voice? Well, this isn't really "voice" in the sense of words or language. It is a "cry," something wilder and more elemental—the "constant" sound of the sea: the churning waves against the rocks and across the sandy beach. Ghosts will moan; the sea will cry. They might lack bodies, but they can still make a racket.
  • But the sea doesn't just make a cry, it also causes a cry. The structure of this line, the way it is cut in half with the comma—"made" on one side," caused" on the other—and the fact that the line isn't cluttered with other distracting elements or ideas, really encourages us to look at "made" and "caused" as two different things.
  • We can look at it two different ways: either the sea is making the sound, or the sea is causing the sound to happen. It is the sound of the spirit of the sea, or it is the sound caused by sea's place in the natural world: the water sloshed by the wind and tides, water against the rocks and across the sand of the beach.
  • It is a subtle difference, but Wallace wants us to be aware of it. So… be aware. 
  • Still with us? Good. Now, hold on to your bucket and pail. If we look at line 5 carefully, Stevens is actually saying that both of these things are happening at the same time. Both elements, the spirit of the sea and the sea as part of the natural world, are responsible for the "cry."
  • The sea makes a sound, but also causes a sound. We are starting to get a sense of the sea as inspiration or cause for the song. But if we know Stevens, this is an oversimplification of the relationship between the singer and the sea. 
  • The sea is personified in these lines, given human characteristics: it has sleeves, it cries—sounds like Shmoop's last date! 
  • The personification of the sea is our first clue that we need to look at the sea as more than just the sea—extended metaphor alert! The sea represents the natural world, external reality, and inspiration/the muse. Stick a pin in that one too. With luck, this will (okay, might) become clearer later.

Lines 6-7

That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

  • The sound, the "cry," that the sea made is not "ours." (We're glad it's not us crying—not yet anyway. Check back in another stanza or two.) It is "inhuman," something other
  • And yet, we do understand it at some level. It is the sound of the "veritable" ocean—the true, real ocean, not the idea or interpretation of the sea, but the actual sea.
  • We should note here that the speaker is using "ours" and "we." It appears that our speaker is not alone.
  • The use of plural pronouns makes us feel included, like we are part of the poem. It feels like the speaker is including us. See? Wallace likes us! He wouldn't pick us last for basketball or pretend not to see us in the hall.

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