On Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower” and Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West”
Hart Crane’s poem “The Broken Tower” and Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” have markedly different subjects, yet both use similar methods and similar themes through which they view and present their subjects. Both poems are musical at every level: both use musical imagery throughout and, to varying degrees, address musical ideas as their subject matter; both deploy a formidable arsenal of poetic techniques to infuse their language with layers of meaning and implication; both present speakers whose deeply complex relation to the world of each poem frequently shifts. The musicality of these two poems derives from these techniques, among many others.
The opening line of each poem speaks directly to the creation and power of music. Stevens’s poem begins with the line, “she sang beyond the genius of the sea.” This is, in many ways, a simpler image than that which opens “The Broken Tower”: “The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn.” Both images establish the symbolic significances which act as the foundation of the rest of the poem, though they accomplish this end through very different means.
The most obvious differences lie in the length and complexity of these introductory lines. Stevens’ initial line is brief and spoken simply; Crane’s unfolds over roughly the first stanza, comprising four lines, although the initial image—of the “bell-rope”—quickly folds into other images, during the following three lines:
The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day – to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.
However, it does not follow that Stevens’s initial line is therefore less complex than Crane’s. In fact, the opening line of “The Idea of Order at Key West” is profoundly enigmatic, despite its ostensible simplicity. “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” raises many questions: Who is singing? What is the genius of the sea? How can one sing beyond it? What are the implications of that achievement for the character, the indefinite singing woman? Is she human? Does the power of her song suggest that the human ability to create music has the potential to transcend even what is most glorious in nature? Stevens generates this range of questions—all of great importance and power—from a very simple, “accessible” first line and sentence.
Hart Crane’s initial line and image produces a similar range and depth of meanings and complexity, though he provides a far more overtly and formally complex introduction. The first stanza, a quatrain, is also the first sentence; at no point in which is any specific, “real-world” action conveyed. Instead, the entire stanza functions according to metaphor and simile. It begins with the assertion that “the bell-rope that gathers God at dawn / Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell / Of a spent day.” It is difficult, at first, to understand exactly what action is being described here. Crane’s speaker is “dispatched” by some force, symbolized by a “bell-rope” which “gathers God at dawn.” As with Stevens’s initial line, a tremendous ambiguity is established by the abstraction of these initial images. Crane does not offer us an easy route into understanding what exactly each image refers to. Instead, we are overwhelmed with possible meanings offered by his sequence of images, each of which seems to both develop naturally out of the previous one yet also introduce something completely new. This vast range of possible meanings combines with the speaker’s refusal to divulge any simple explanation of his images to produce an effect similar to that of music, which, similarly, provides a sequence of notes that convey a vast range of possible meanings, without (typically) offering a neat explanation of the meaning it wishes to convey. Nonetheless, music and Crane’s opening lines do, of course, convey meaning, even if it may be impossible to fully describe what the meaning is.
Stevens, like Crane, provides a further sequence of lines which serve to both explain and complicate the initial images. Once again, this functions similarly to music, especially longer classical pieces of music, like symphonies, in which refrains introduced at the beginning of a piece are developed and expanded upon throughout the piece. This method of development can help a reader to understand how both poems also develop their meaning and complicate the themes initially introduced.
That both poems begin by describing the creation of some kind of art provides a further clue regarding the poem’s central themes. For all its complexity, the meaning of “The Broken Tower” can be centered essentially on the life and struggles of someone compelled to create art. Crane’s speaker is the person so compelled and so the meaning of the poem derives from these first-person reflections on his own situation. The speaker of “The Idea of Order at Key West” has a different, more distant relation to the figure who creates, as indicated by the third-person “she” which opens the poem. The song created by the woman in Stevens’s poem seems also to be a more organic production than the creations of Crane’s haunted speaker. The first stanza describes how the song of the woman is matched by the “mimic motion” of the ocean, which “made constantly a cry, caused constantly a cry, / That was not ours although we understood, / Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.” This symbiotic relationship with the natural world seems less wrought with anxiety and struggle as a creative process than that of “The Broken Tower’s speaker’s does.” The sixth stanza of Crane’s poem concisely conveys the speaker’s turmoil:
My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope,—cleft to despair?
Here, Crane’s speaker expresses his anxiety that his writing—his “word”—may not be “cognate,” which seems in this case to refer to the possibility that words can, if chosen, connected and deployed as effectively as possible, acquire some kind of life, some ability to think and generate meaning beyond their most basic, conventional function. Unlike the singer in Stevens’s poem, Crane’s speaker describes a tortuous relation to the process of creation and to the features of the world which he seeks to convey; he does not possess—or does not claim to possess—the ability to create as naturally as the singer in Stevens’s poem. Crane’s speaker goes as far as to describe himself in a relation of servitude to that which compels him to create and that which he wishes to convey: “And I, their sexton slave!” This stands in stark contrast to the relation described in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” in which the speaker states that “we . . . / Knew that there never was a world for her / Except the one she sang and, singing, made.” Both Stevens’s singer and Crane’s speaker create, yet Crane’s suffers through the process, seemingly fighting against the whole world and his own insufficiencies. In contrast, the singer of Stevens’s poem is described as being entirely at one with the natural world, to the extent that she is not only capable of creating the world she lives in through her song but can only exist by creating her own world in this way. In both cases, the speaker’s relation to the world is defined by the complex dialectic which results from desiring to convey one’s experience of the world as accurately as possible while necessarily not being able to replicate the world perfectly. If Stevens’s singer is depicted as being more effective in this respect than Crane’s speaker, that success ultimately leads only to the creation of another world, separate to yet contained within and deriving from the world which they depicted. This reflects the difficulties found in the speaker of any poem, but which are amplified in both of these poems.
All art functions in essentially the same world; the actual world is processed and transfigured into a work of art which in some way conveys, or at least seeks to convey, the actual world. It therefore creates a kind of surrogate, or proxy, for the actual world, all in order to help the creator and the consumers of the art understand and enter into a closer relation with the actual world. It seems reasonable to assert, therefore, that art is in part characterized by a process of drawing closer to the actual world by temporarily replacing it with a heightened, concentrated surrogate of the actual world. This strange relation of separation and displacement seems to haunt the speakers and creators of Stevens’s and Crane’s poems, as well as serving as the foundation of each poem.
This complex relation is particularly difficult to grasp and comprehend in music. A sequence of notes cannot literally convey the actual world. Poetry, on the other hand, is formed of words, each of which is tied to a specific referent. Consequently, music seems more abstracted and distanced than writing. Yet, somehow, music manages to convey the world for us. It is so effective at this that it has driven critics like Walter Pater to write such grand statements as “all art aspires to the condition of music.” This kind of aspiration can be clearly seen in both of these poems by Crane and Stevens.
Crane’s poem is a first-person account of the speaker’s struggles to accurately reflect his experience of the world in poetry. Stevens’s poem also has a first-person speaker who is interested in the relationship between art and experience, but in Stevens’s poem, the person engaged in the creative act is not the speaker, but another person, the singer. Thus, whereas Crane’s speaker is directly seeking to create, Stevens’s speaker is distanced from the process of creation. Despite this degree of remove, we cannot evade that Stevens’s speaker is, of course, the speaker of the poem. Although the poem describes another character who creates, the speaker himself is also creating. It is from this perspective that we can appreciate some of the similarities between Stevens’s speaker and Crane’s. Both express concerns about the limits of understanding and apprehending fully.
The final two stanzas relate some of this anxiety. The penultimate stanza describes the situation “when the singing ended” and the speaker’s request to a companion, “Ramon Fernandez,” for an explanation as to why the lights:
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Stevens introduces here a new directness of his engagement with the theme implied in the title: “the idea of order.” In his request to Ramon Fernandez, Stevens’s speaker suddenly wants answers as to how the world can suddenly seem to be so clearly and neatly ordered and arranged. The effect of this ordering is described as “deepening” and “enchanting” the “night.” If those are the products of such ordering, then, the poem implies, art has the same effect; it arranges the world and, in so doing, deepens and enchants the world. The consequences might also be neatly summarized by the final line of Stevens’s poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”: “and there I found myself more truly and more strange.” Both Stevens’s and Crane’s speakers seem to ultimately find themselves “more truly and more strange” as a result of their respective engagements with the questions and difficulties of creating art.
The final stanza of “The Idea of Order at Key West” addresses the question of creation with more clarity and directness than at any previous point than at any previous point of the poem. Describing a “blessed rage for order,” the speaker seems to also describe exactly what so haunts Crane’s speaker; to what else is the speaker of “The Broken Tower’ a “sexton slave” but a “blessed rage for order”? It is a rage and a sadness that possesses Crane’s speaker and which finally comes to possess Stevens’s speaker, a rage in both cases for “order,” finally summarized by Stevens’s speaker as “the maker’s rage to order words of the sea.” This line seems to finally describe most accurately the root of the musicality of both poems. Both engage directly with this desire to most accurately order—or reorder—the world, because both poems also engage with makers seeking to order the world. The power of artistic creation is summarized beautifully in the final lines of both poems. In Stevens’ poem, words are finally those “of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, / And of ourselves and of our origins, / In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.” This vastness of significance and effect, encompassing as much as “ourselves” and “our origins,” explains how both speakers can seem so agonized by the difficulties of accurately ordering “words of the sea.” Similarly, Crane’s poem concludes with the lines: “The commodious, tall decorum of that sky / Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.” The vast range of the stakes of art as finally fully suggested in these two poems—explanations of “ourselves and of our origins,” as well as the lifting of “love” in a “shower”—is at the root of their respective musicalities. It is the agonized relation of the speaker compelled to “order words of the sea”, yet tormented by the difficulties of achieving such order, from which both poems derive.
Crane, Hart. The Collected Poems of Hart Crane. New York: Liverright, 1933.
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.