The Idea of Order at Key West
by Wallace Stevens
Analysis: Sound Check
Alright. We've been at this for awhile now. Let's take a break. How about a little game to relax and unwind? Shmoop loves games! No. Stop. Put the Xbox away. We were thinking more along the lines of a word game. Sorry.
Try this: say, "SHE SEA SHE SEA SEA SHE SEA SHE SHE SEA SEA SEA SHE SEA SHE."
Did you do it? You need to actually say the words—aloud.
What do you notice about the two words? What happens when you say them next to one another? The two words look and sound very similar. Only one letter separates one from actually being the other. They are so similar, in fact, that the sounds become almost indistinguishable when you say the words over and over.
The auditory quality of these two words in close proximity mirrors one of the central ideas of the poem: the internal and external become, in a sense, indistinguishable. The sea is the external, natural world, but it is also the sea the singer creates. It is through imagination that reality is made understandable. Imagination and reality are different, internal and external are different, just as the words she and sea are different, but they become indistinguishable from one another in close proximity.
For this same reason, we get just a whole heapin' helping of repetition (several words and phrases are repeated) and alliteration. Need some examples? Well, look no further than stanza 1, folks! In it, we get "She," "sang," "sea" (line 1), the repetition of "body" (3), "mimic motion" (4), and—deep breath—"constant cry, caused constantly a cry" (5). And that's just in the first stanza! We challenge you to find more such examples of repeated, alliterative language in this poem (hint: it's not much of a challenge; that stuff is all over the place).
So what's the deal? Was Stevens trying to write a masterpiece that was also a tongue-twister? Probably not (though we wouldn't put it past him). Instead, like the she-sea back-and-forth, these repeititions accomplish a similar kind of blending—at the level of sound. Just as Stevens' poem is doing its best to trace the blurry line where imagination meets reality, these repetitions create a similar blurring and blending of sound in the mind's ear. Pretty clever, Wally!