Pat Righelato: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Indeed, in the ability to express potentía, an unforced intimacy with the sublime in consciousness and nature, Stevens was to prove more ‘capable’ than Emerson. He worked through the problem of the discrepancy of scale between consciousness and nature in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. It is a key poem in that its engagement with the sublime is schematic, yet lyrical.

In the first verse the girl singer (symbol of the lyric poet), who walks beside the sea, sings beyond the sea because the sea is incapable of expressive utterance; the sea is empty rhetoric — (what Crispin called ‘the brunt’): the sea is at once presence and absence.

In the second verse the problematic relationship between humanity and nature is stated: ‘The song and water were not medleyed sound’. The elements might seem to be ‘gasping’ for utterance but utterance is human. The decisiveness of the statement ‘But it was she’ affirms human significance but also bleakly acknowledges the autonomy of the created world of art — beside and beyond but not with the sea.

In verse four, the empty rhetoric of nature is only potentially sublime and meaningful: ‘the heaving speech of air’, ‘the meaningless plunges of water’ need the human voice to give them significance. There is moreover a discrepancy of scale in this theatre— the small figure of the girl and the huge ocean — but it is the girl who brings it all to bear:

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing

This line again suggests intensity given by poetic expression but also nature’s escape — ‘vanishing’ — a poignant expression of the separation of humanity and nature.

In verse five, the poet addresses a fellow human being, asking why it is that artistic expression (the song of the girl) has the magical effect of intensifying consciousness, seeming to order nature. In moonlight (the imagination’s symbol) the human lights seem to localise the cosmos: they ‘mastered the night and portioned out the sea’. It is an idea of order; it is the imagination’s power to communicate an idea of order.

The last verse is a celebratory chant, a celebration of the powers of language and of creative desire. In the last line the ‘ghostlier demarcations’ in moonlight, the imagination’s light, are ‘ghostlier’ because creations of the spirit creating its territory, its ‘demarcations’; the ‘keener sounds’ are the utterance of poetry, ‘keener’, more intense, sharper than the impotent ‘heaving’ rhetoric of nature. The final image is at once removed, shadowy and closer to us.

From Righelato, Pat, "Wallace Stevens." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.


Title Pat Righelato: On "The Idea of Order at Key West" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Pat Righelato Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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