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The Idea of Order at Key West

The Idea of Order at Key West


by Wallace Stevens

Stanza 3 Summary

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

Line 15

For she was the maker of the song she sang.

  • So, despite drawing inspiration from the sea, despite the fact that she was "[singing] what she heard," imitating the sounds of the sea, she is the creator of the song—not the sea.
  • And what about that word, "maker"? Sure, the artist is the maker, the creator. But in a broader sense the word maker reinforces the spiritual theme that runs through the poem. Who is the greatest Maker of them all—the greatest creator? Think about it. Perhaps through… ahem, devine intervention you'll figure it out.
  • The use of the term "maker" also strengthens our extended metaphor of "she" as artist. With "maker," Stevens encourages us to include poets in that artist group—the term "maker" in Greek also means poet. Coincidence? We think not!
    This line is the third example of Stevens starting a stanza with a short, clear sentence. Thanks, Wallace!

Lines 16-17

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.

  • The sea is described again and Stevens continues with the personification established earlier in the poem: the sea is "hooded" and capable of "gestur[ing]."
  • "Ever-hooded" could be a physical description of waves—the way the face of the wave is covered or hooded as the wave breaks.
  • "Tragic-gestured" seems to imply something sad in the movement of the sea. If we connect this with the "mimic-motion" from line 4, it seems to suggest that there is something sad about the sea's imitation of life, "fluttering / Its empty sleeves." Remember, the sea is described as being, in a sense, incomplete in the very first stanza of the poem.
  • In stanza 2, Stevens tells us that, "what she sang was what she heard." This suggests the sea was the inspiration for the song, right? Well, the word, "merely" in line 17 seems to belittle the sea's role a bit. What's up with that, Wallace? Is the sea the reason for the song or not? Isn't the sea the inspiration? Let's read on to find out.

Lines 18-20

Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

  • Remember that word "genius" from line 1? Line 18 reinforces the reading of genius as "spirit." The sea is wholly spirit, remember? The listeners are seeking the origins of the spirit, the muse of the song. Is that spirit coming from her or the sea? "Whose spirit is this?" The speaker and friends want to keep this question in mind while they listen to the song.
  • Take a look at those end words, Shmoopers. Lines 18-20 end "knew," "knew," "sang." It is unlikely that Stevens just got lazy and couldn't think of a new end word, so he went with "knew" twice. He just wasn't that kind of guy. More likely he was trying to emphasize or signal something for the reader.
  • The line break Stevens chose for line 18 is important—and not just for the end word. Because the line is enjambed (because there is not pause or punctuation at the end and the idea of the line carries over into the next line), we are left for a moment with the sense that the speaker "knew" the answer to the question he just posed: "Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew…"
  • The "knew" is syntactically meant to go with the beginning of the next line. In other words, "we said, because we knew / It was the spirit that we sought." But we still get that lingering feeling of already knowing whose spirit it is from the way the previous line ends.
  • Stevens does it again (enjambment, that is) in line 19, giving the momentary impression that the speaker "knew" the spirit: "It was the spirit that we sought and knew."
  • The "knew" actually belongs with the beginning of the next line, though: "we […] knew / That we should ask this often." But that momentary suggestion of the knowing sticks with us, even if only in a subtle way. Just because it's subtle it doesn't mean it's not there. Consider the aftertaste of a diet soda or the way the pavement smells after a summer rain—subtle, but definitely there.
  • Actually, if we go back and look at the end words for the entire stanza, Stevens is pretty much hitting us over the head with the juxtaposition of the song (the art) and the sea (the inspiration) and the fact that perhaps, subconsciously, we know the truth of the spirit or inspiration: "sang," "sea," "sing," "knew," "knew," "sang."

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