Last autumn, those who follow English politics were galvanised by the nightly performance, in the House of Commons, of the former Speaker John Bercow, barking, with undiminished relish, the above words. They held overtones of high Victorian drama. None could have imagined the anguish of the lockdown that followed for us all.
Let us now find a poem that celebrates “unlocking” and what better place to do it than on the golden beaches of the Algarve.
Wallace Stevens’ poem was written as an enigma. It is also a personal invitation to discover that magic place where sea meets land. Stevens wrote the poem in 1934. His mother and father were Pennsylvania Dutch; he was prone to depression and finding in his early years the literary path too steep, in 1916 he took a position with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, having qualified as a lawyer. He held this position the rest of his life. He moved between the legal and poetic worlds.
This poem is considered one of his finest. Well worth reading Wikipedia on its style and possible meanings, but I have a different reason for writing about it; it is a poem about the sounds of the sea, and I hope it will add pleasure to your next walk along the sands.
But first, why do we love beaches so much anyway? – beyond building sandcastles for toddlers. Every foreshore represents a special location for the start of animal life on earth. It is the stepping stone in our evolution from sea to land millions of years ago. I believe this seminal moment is genetically embedded in us all. Only a few years back, in 2006 to be exact, scientists discovered that the human ear evolved from ancient fish gills – but back to poetry!
Emotionally, how do we respond to the “call of the sea” or, in Stevens’ case, its sounds? Stevens teases us: “But it was she and not the sea we heard. For she was the maker of the song she sang”, “It was the spirit that we sought and knew that we should ask this often as she sang”.
Very few countries allow one to take a jeep and drive between the sand and sea, putting up seabirds and chasing between small waves. In Spain, in the Doñana Natural Park, one can do this at the end of a three-hour guided expedition, driving back into the setting sun. The journey, taken with a few others, is itself a liberation.
In Northeast Brazil, between Natal and Fortaleza, one can make an expedition of three days. The first part is wild, breasting Ponta do Calcanhar. Then one turns west, in and out of deserted bays. The success of the longer trip is that one becomes part of this no man’s land between land and sea. I did this trip many years back, and whilst the poem is centred on Key West, it is the lonely vast Brazilian beaches it evokes for me. The poem conjures up “the heaving speech of air, a summer sound repeated in a summer without end”.
It is a privilege to live in the Algarve; here the tip of Europe plunges into the vast Atlantic Ocean. Coast and sea are energised by the current of discovery, which propelled the Portuguese sailors of the past. Around Africa, to India and beyond, and then to the “West Indies”; to some the sea has brought fortune, to others a watery grave. Stevens put us on the beach with him and his friend. We can see “her striding there alone, knowing that there never was a world for her except the one she sang and singing made”. Could the enigma of the emotions to which the sea gives rise ever be better expressed?
Now the beaches are open again and Stevens permits his muse “to sing beyond the genius of the sea”. Night falls. From Portimão or Alvor or Ferragudo, we can turn, with Ramon Fernandez, “toward the town” and see the lights in the fishing boats at anchor there tilting in the air”, “mastering the night and portioning out the sea”.
If ever there was a poem for those, living within the siren call of the sea, to celebrate our hard-won emancipation, this is it. There we may “order the words of the sea” and of ourselves and of our origins”. What a perfect indulgence after all we have collectively been through this year!
In researching this article, I was delighted to find a first-class review written by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker of May 2, 2016 of a recent book written by Paul Mariani on Wallace Stevens called “The Whole Harmonium”. You can find this on the internet under Wallace Stevens, and it speaks much of our poem. Quoting from this review, “Certainly Stevens’ poems precipitate rainstorms of sudden feelings, some of them hitting, others eluding a given reader’s comprehension. To savor the drenching effect, read him aloud”.
Little need, probably, to take an umbrella on your stroll at this time of year … but just in case!
By Anthony Slingsby
The Idea of Order at Key West
By Wallace Stevens
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
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.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
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,
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.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hours its solitude.
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.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
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.
Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” from Collected Poems. Copyright 1923, 1951, 1954 by Wallace Stevens.