Only when Stevens can harmonize the philosopher's exoteric voice with the esoteric voice of the poet can he remain philosophically rigorous yet sound the "watery syllable" of the "saltier well." We hear this language of meditation again in "The Idea of Order at Key West," where he replaces linguistic and metaphysical dichotomies with a triangular arrangement and places the meditating mind at the apex. The poem returns to the discovery of "Sunday Morning" and to its dramatic form but casts the philosopher, the Emersonian essayist, as its central speaker. While it may revert stylistically to the "magnificent measure" that the post-romantic—with his eccentric truth—must learn to relinquish, "Key West" points to Stevens's way out of the impasse of poems like the "Comedian" and "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." It enables us to understand his subsequent insistence that poetry is the proper subject of poetry to be not a solipsistic withdrawal but an adequate response to just that danger.
The sea that "never formed to mind or voice" is, in "Key West," both the "inhuman," "veritable ocean" and an inner "nature" of Eros and death. And Stevens counterpoints the "grinding water and the gasping wind" of nature with the "song" of the "artificer" in such a way that neither subject nor object speaks through the other:
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word. [CP, 128]
Both the pathetic fallacy and realism are rejected. The "plungings of water and the wind" are "meaningless" indeed, and we do not hear them, any more than we ever hear nature in poems. And the woman's song does not copy nature; it is "the voice that is great" (CP, 138) within her—her human "spirit" (stanza 3) or "breath"—rising in response to the sea's body and the "gasping wind." Yet we never hear the words of her lyric, either. The sea is an external nature with its meaningless, "constant cry"; its image and counterpart is the "she" who sings "word by word." Her measures and meters utter her song's law, just as the sea's cry sounds nature's law.
Stevens distances the lyric voice to the same extent that nature's echolalia is distanced. Instead, he centers on the speaker, the "connoisseur of chaos," and the "idea of order" he entertains. This meditating and mediating speaker is not a singer but a rhetorician, something of a critic even, and in his words, letters, and internal rhymes "relation appears" (CP, 215") between the "she" and "sea." Here Stevens goes beyond "Sea Surface" by explicitly affirming a relation between the sea and song—but only as the subject and predicate of a metaphor about the relationship of life and art. The Emersonian precedent for this poem is "The Snow-Storm," which also centers on the metaphor-making imagination, and invites us to "come see" a process "unseen"—a process not visible to the eye. In "Key West" such "seeing" becomes the link between "sea " and "she."
In this deconstruction of a romantic fusion of nature and subject, Stevens constructs a central rhetoric. In the words of the poem's speaker, the alien depths of a nature at once external and internal meet in the surfaces of a poetic language that glosses
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. [CP, 130]
The song has a transforming significance only for its hearer, who hears a new, "amassing harmony" as much beyond the song as beyond the sea. For the critic, the singer's voice makes "the sky acutest at its vanishing" and measures "to the hour its solitude." Her measures open intercourse between nature and "ourselves," mastering and portioning out the darkness of inner and outer seas—but only in the "meta-phoric" speech of the critic who "inter-prets" and outlines the connection between artifice and sea, form and nature, music and death. He occupies the center, which is a portal or passageway—spatially and temporally "measured" by the singer—from a dark sea outside us to a darker sea inside, "dimly-starred" either way.
This metaphoric passage is, appropriately, a "fragrant" portal: the synesthesia makes the image a proper vehicle for its tenor, the earthly and earthy truth of figurative language. Measuring a space and time, the singer opens a door that delivers us into yet "separates us from the wind and sea" (CP, 87). The metaphoric/temporal passage is guarded by the "fragrant mother" of "Fictive Music," who belongs to the same "sisterhood of the living dead" (CP, 87), and the poet's muse—the mother of memory and imagination, the "mother of heaven, regina of the clouds" (CP, 13)—is also his earthly source, the "bearded queen" who would "feed" on him (CP, 507 ). All are imaginings of the same "mother" who opens and closes our earthly discourse, who binds the "handbook of heartbreak" (CP, 507 ). Thus Stevens understands metaphoric language as the threshold of fiction and truth, where the philosopher's "human should or would" and the poet's "fatal is" meet. In Stevens's impure voice, Emerson's "fatal is" becomes a copula that marks metaphoric unions.
From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987.