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The Idea of Order at Key West

The Idea of Order at Key West


by Wallace Stevens

Stanza 4 Summary

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

Lines 21-28

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,

  • Okay. Don't panic. Yes, we've bitten off a pretty big, pretty dense chunk of Stevens, but we won't leave you hanging here. Promise.
  • We are looking at the first 8 lines of stanza 4 all in one chunk because that is how Stevens (most likely) wants us to look at it. Hey, it's his poem after all—might as well go with it.
  • The indication that these lines belong together is in the structure. This section is tied with stanza 5 for the longest section of the poem without a full stop (a period).
  • The result is a kind of building of intensity, of feeling, in the descriptions in these eight lines. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
  • Remember that, in the previous stanza, Stevens was focusing on song, sound, and the origin—the spirit from whence it came. The question again is this: is the inspiration for the song (art) coming from the sea (natural world/reality), or is it already present in the singer (artist)? Does the sea alone or the singer alone posses the spirit that gives the song life?
  • With that in mind, Stevens presents us with a few more things to consider.
  • If the song was only the "dark voice of the sea" that was rising and changing ("colored by many waves"), or if it was only the "outer voice of sky / And cloud," ("outer," as in not inner, external rather that internal), or if it was coming from deep below, from the "sunken coral" surrounded by the waters of the sea—if it were any of these things alone, then it would only be so much "deep air." Regardless of how "clear" the sound, the song, was, it would be nothing more than "the heaving speech of air."
  • "Heaving" does not bring to mind anything as crafted or beautiful as a song. It is cruder and more elemental. Again, remember stanza 1. The sea is lacking the refinements of mind or voice.
  • The song would be "a summer sound" (the sounds of the surf and wind) and it would be repeated, copied, endlessly without variation (the same sounds over and over again as opposed to the notes of a song with calculated patterns and variations), creating the effect of endless summer. (Hey, at least the endless summer part sounds pretty good, right?). But it would be only the sound, "sound alone."
  • Line 28 contains period right smack dab in the middle. The period after the phrase "And sound alone" really sets the phrase off, drawing attention to it.
  • Although the phrase probably is feeling a little alone and cut off from the rest of the line, the primary meaning Stevens is going for is "alone" as in only.

Lines 28-33

[…] But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

  • The second half of line 28, after the period, gives us a signal, a transitional phrase that sets up what comes in the rest of this long stanza: "But it [the sound/song] was more than that."
  • Stevens goes on to tell us that the song was not only more than the sound of the sea and the wind and the waves, it was more than "her voice, and ours, among / The meaningless plungings of water and the wind."
  • The use of the word "meaningless" is significant here. Remember the extended metaphor: the sea is reality and the natural world. If we apply that interpretation of the sea to these lines, the natural world—heck, reality itself—lacks meaning on its own.
  • Stevens goes beyond sound in this stanza and explores more visual elements of the seascape itself. He thinks the scene is trying a little too hard: the view is "theatrical." The "bronze shadows (sunset at the beach) are "heaped" (too much, overflowing). Stevens heaps on the poetic devices with a large helping of alliteration with all those H sounds: "heaped / On high horizons."
  • Steven's next description, "mountainous atmospheres," works in the literal sense in that it is referring to the quality of the air—sea air—at the location.
  • "Mountainous" is used in the sense of huge, referring to the almost overwhelming quality of the sea air. If you've ever smelled the sea air, you remember it.
  • "Mountainous atmospheres" also works in a more figurative sense with the extended metaphors for art that are running through the poem. Atmosphere can refer to the condition or quality of the air, but it also refers to the tone or mood of a particular place or work of art. So, we have the literal atmosphere of the place (the scent and feel of the air) and the figurative atmosphere of the song, the art, contained in one description. Pretty slick, Wally! Er, sorry—Mr. Stevens.
  • The description of the seascape ends with shortest line in the poem, four short words. Here again, we can assume that this isn't an accident. Stevens didn't just run out of things to say about the sea and decide to move on. Stevens wasn't the kind of guy to run out of things to say. More likely he made this line extra short for a good reason.
  • Line 33 is made up of only a preposition, two nouns, and a conjunction. The result is those two nouns ("sky" and "sea") get a lot of attention. Visually, they stand out on the page. The short line demands our attention. In the context of the poem, the short line makes those key imagistic and metaphorical elements of sea and sky stand out. We are left to ponder, to imagine, to see the sea and the sky and all the blue and all the movement as our eyes travel across all that empty space at the end of the line.

Lines 34-35

           It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.

  • Line 34 is short and indented. Like its buddy, line 33, it demands a lot of attention.
  • The focus shifts from the description of the seascape back to the question at hand: who or what is responsible for the power of her song?
  • Together, lines 34 and 35 give us a pretty clear statement. Her voice is affecting the speaker's perception of the scene. Her voice makes the sky sharper, more intense at the point of its "vanishing."
  • Okay, Shmoopers, riddle time! When does the sky vanish? Did you say "When you go inside"? If you did, well… you're wrong. Okay, you're right, but not in the context of this poem. Remember our setting is very natural. So, in a natural setting, where does the sky vanish? You guessed it, at the horizon! 
  • So, why didn't Wallace just say horizon? By using "vanishing," Stevens is able to add another layer of meaning (he keeps doing that, doesn't he?). When something vanishes, it gradually ceases to exist. It is as if her voice is erasing all other perceptions of the sky and the sea.

Line 36

She measured to the hour its solitude.

  • We have another one-line sentence here, but it is not as direct, or clear, as the ones that have preceded it. 
  • "She measured," determined (figured out) "to the hour" (with exactness) "its" (the sky's, or the horizon's) "solitude." 
  • Got it. Wait, what?
  • With the word "solitude," Stevens seems to be remarking on the quality of the sky at the horizon line, it's singleness (not like available to date, more like without compare). Her voice captured and magnified the quality that makes it something our eyes are drawn to. The horizon is something unique—it has captured the imagination since the days when people thought they were looking at the edge of the world.
  • Stevens' choice of the word "measured" is interesting, too. Remember that the title is, "The Idea of Order at Key West." When we measure something, we are trying to place it on a continuum—in essence, to order it. Things are starting to come together here, right? No? Well, if not, just keep reading!

Line 37-43

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

  • Okay! Let's start with that word "artificer." Naturally, if you didn't already know the meaning you looked it up, right? Right. So, by now we all know that an artificer is like an inventor or a skilled craftsperson.
  • So what do inventors do? They make new things, they create.
  • It is also worth noting that the word, artificer, has art in it. This provides some visual reinforcement for one of our key extended metaphors: she = artist.
  • The break in line 37 is significant. The line is enjambed and the end word, "world," gives us the initial reading of the line as the singer being the only creator of the world! Heady stuff! Let's consider this in terms of our extended metaphors.
  • She, the artist, was the only maker/creator of the world "in which she sang."
  • So, in a sense, we have the artist/poet creating the world. (And your parents said being an Art major was a waste of time!)
  • Whatever identity the sea had before she sang was lost. It became the sea of her making.
  • Line 40 has a full-stop (a period) after "maker" and then, "Then we," ends the line. This structure brings into focus again the speaker and the other or others that are listening to the singer and observing the scene.
  • As the listeners watch the singer walking alone and listen to her song, they realize that she (the singer) was not creating some alternative reality from the inspiration of the sea. She was singing the only reality she knew, the only "world" she knew. The world she "sang" was the one she created by the singing.
  • Stretch break! Is your brain in knots yet? It should be. It wouldn't be a Stevens poem if it wasn't. Let's try to sort this out a little more.
  • Things are starting to feel a little chicken and egg: How can she sing the sea if the singing makes the sea?
  • Stevens is dealing with a big philosophical question here. Remember our extended metaphors. The sea is the natural world/reality. The singer (the artist), through her inner world (imagination) completes the external world (the sea) and changes the speaker's perception of it.
  • Still too confusing? Try this: The human mind completes the natural world. Reality is incomplete without the influence of imagination.
  • We each create our own reality. Our experience, our personality, colors the way we perceive the world around us.
  • When Shmoop stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, we are overcome with feelings of passing time and mortality. When you visit the Grand Canyon, you might feel a sense of possibility and hope for the future: same place, same colors, same influences, totally different perceptions. The place lacks significance, lacks meaning, without the addition of the human mind and imagination and emotion.
  • Art allows us to share our perception of reality, of the external world, with others. That is essentially what is happening with our singer and our speaker. Her perception, expressed through the art of her song, is changing the speaker's experience of the sea.

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