On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

A. Walton Litz

The poem has progressed from a transforming imagination which is soul to man, and brother of the sky, to a fancy which indulges in idle or comic transformations. The final promise of "fresh transfigurations of freshest blue" is never fulfilled.

"Sea Surface Full of Clouds" is usually thought of as a highpoint in Harmonium, one of Stevens" most persuasive statements of the imagination’s powers; but it may also be seen as an artificial and somewhat pretentious effort to revive the exhausted imagination, a use of language as if it were a stimulant. In the passion which occasionally breaks through, as in stanza IV, there are tantalizing hints that the poem is a displaced and disguised treatment of emotions or occasions that never enter its public life. In the canon of Harmonium, "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" makes an interesting counter-statement to "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird": in one the decorative imagination deals with a seascape of fluid color and motion, almost without form, while in the other an austere imagination works constantly from the concrete details of a perceived landscape. If "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is like a series of Japanese prints rendering the same scene in different seasons or from different viewpoints, then "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" is more like Monet’s Impressionistic renderings of Rouen cathedral in various lights, but with one crucial exception: whereas Monet tried to record the façade of Rouen cathedral as it struck the eye at different times of day, showing how light transforms the density and tactile details of solid stone, Stevens took as his subject the most fluid of scenes, where the imagination could be sovereign over physical reality.

From A. Walton Litz, Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens (New York: Oxford U P, 1972), 150-151.

Jonathan Holden

In each of the five sections, certain elements of the scene--"chocolate," "umbrellas," "green," "machine," "blooms," and "clouds"--oriented with respect to "the deck"--are held as invariants in a changing light, first a "morning summer" hue, next a "streaked" "breakfast jelly yellow," next a "patterned" "pale silver," then a "mallow morning," and, finally, "The day . . . bowing and voluble." Each "light" projects a different atmosphere. Or, rather, each set of terms introducing the "light" determines another set of terms which, in turn, determines the distinctive ambience of each section, each "scene" an ambience which, though believable, is conspicuously synthetic in much the same way that Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," suggests, with his metaphor drawn from chemistry, that "art-emotion" is synthetic. When terms such as "rosy chocolate," "gilt umbrellas," "Paradisal green," "suavity," "perplexed," and "machine" are put together, they so mutually react, so color one another, that they form something new, a combination in which none of them retains its original properties: they form not a mixture but a new compound. Eliot's metaphor is more than satisfactory. It implicitly portrays the poet as a word-scientist conducting, in the laboratory of the poem, an experiment. We know, too, that behind Eliot's metaphor lies the symboliste enthrallment with the synthetic and with the ideal, Mallarmé’s professed intent to synthesize the "flower absent from all bouquets." But if we make the short leap from a chemical metaphor to a mathematical one, we find an analogue which may be as satisfying as Eliot's; we find, in fact, that Eliot's analogy, for all its virtues, has obscured some other illuminating connections. We might think of the invariant structure of "chocolate," "umbrellas," "green," "machine," "blooms," and "clouds" as akin to coefficients in a polynomial, f(x), of the form anxn + an-1xn-1 + . . . + a1x + ao  in which the variable, x, the deck, can assume a different value or "light" in each section, so that each section rather playfully, as if in demonstration, yields a different value for f(x) as each new "light" is substituted for x. In this poem, the "value," instead of being numerical, is aesthetic--a mood, a flavor, a feeling-tone, an intimation of something impalpable yet recognizable; for just as number is a specialized language that has evolved to express quantifiable values, poetry is the specialized language that has evolved to express synthetically otherwise inexpressible aesthetic values and experiences.

We might entertain a different mathematical analogy: the "deck" in each section is analogous to the Cartesian coordinate system in two dimensions; "chocolate," "umbrellas," "green," "machine," "blooms," and "clouds" are points--the vertices of some hexagonal geometrical figure composed of vectors mapped onto the plane. This hexagonal figure seems to change in each section, as the "deck," the axes in each section, are translated or rotated or altered in scale. But actually the polygon remains invariant: only the axes with respect to which the polygon is oriented and scaled are transformed. The poem, like a mathematical demonstration, escorts us through a sequence of linear transformations. Moreover, like a mathematical demonstration, in each of its steps it succeeds through its specialized language, in expressing "something" which, without this language, would have remained inexpressible and, because it was inexpressible, scarcely perceptible at all. It is this issue of "inexpressibility" which should enable us to appreciate fully the analogy between poetry and mathematics and how serious this analogy might be. Without mathematics, how would we describe the orbit of a planet? As "round"? As an "oval" path? How close to looking like a circle? How "eccentric"? Without the quadratic equations that graph an ellipse, we are reduced to clumsy guesses, incredibly crude linguistic approximations. The mathematical formula for the ellipse, on the other hand, can yield us the precise shape. It is the only way to express that shape. Similarly, without mathematics, how would we express the behavior of a falling object? All we could say was that it goes "'faster and faster and faster." But how "fast" does it go "faster"? Only a differential equation can express this precisely and meaningfully. "Acceleration" can be measured only in mathematical terms. Indeed, the entire concept of "acceleration" is meaningful only in mathematical terms.

Is there an analogous "something" that can be expressed precisely--be measured--only by means of the specialized terms of poetry? I think so. And I think that the mysteriously impalpable moods and changes of light synthesized in each section of "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"--moods which, though seemingly ineffable, we recognize through the language of the poem--demonstrate the specialized capacity of poetic language, like mathematical language, to measure accurately and thereby to find names for areas of experience which would otherwise have eluded us. But even as I suggest this, I am poignantly aware that I cannot prove it. The poem must serve as its own demonstration. Either the reader is overcome with recognition of what had hitherto seemed insufficiently expressed, or the reader is left cold. Auden puts rather neatly this "inexpressibility" theorem of poetry, linking it with the very function of poetry itself, in the prologue to The Sea and the Mirror:

Well, who in his own backyard
Has not opened his heart to the smiling
Secret he cannot quote?
Which goes to show that the Bard
Was sober when he wrote

Pope put a similar idea into somewhat more modest terms: "True wit is Nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." One can attempt to explicate each section of "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," to apply "interpretation" as a means of convincing the skeptical reader that there is "something" recognizable being measured and named by each section, "something" which might be mutually acknowledged with a nod or perhaps a sharp intake of breath or a bristling of the pores--by a frisson. But if the poem cannot accomplish this by itself--if it cannot be its own demonstration--extrinsic attempts at demonstration will never suffice, but will remain prime targets, ludicrous sitting ducks, to be coolly picked off by the poststructuralist critics. And so I will leave "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" undisturbed, trusting that it is its own sufficient testimony.

From Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

George S. Lensing

On October 18,1923, Wallace Stevens and his wife Elsie sailed from New York aboard the Panama Pacific liner Kroonland. Their destination was California via Havana and the Panama Canal. The cruise itself continued for about two weeks, but the total journey was considerably longer because of a leisurely trip overland from California to Hartford, Connecticut, their home. The couple visited Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, the Grand Canyon, Colorado Springs and Pike's Peak. Stevens indicates in a letter that he returned to his office on December 10, about two months after sailing from New York. It was probably shortly after the completion of the long trip that the poet composed his first draft of "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" (CP, 98-102); the poem appeared eight months later in the July 1924 issue of The Dial.

Each of the poem's five sections begins with the phrase "In that November off Tehuantepec" and proceeds to juxtapose a series of images and colors that pattern an imaginative reflection upon and under "that Pacific calm." Tehuantepec, in fact, indicates the name both for the gulf and the city located in southern Mexico more than a thousand miles north of the Panama Canal. There is no evidence that the Stevens's liner docked at the city, and, in an explanation to Ronald Latimer twelve years after the voyage, Stevens explained that "all I know about the place is that one crosses the Bay or Gulf of Tehuantepec on the way to California, so that being 'off Tehuantepec' is not merely something that I have imagined" (L, 288) . There seems little doubt that the 1923 Kroonland cruise occasioned the writing of the poem. Sea-Voyage, a previously unpublished Journal kept by Mrs. Stevens between October 18 and November 1, suggests additional linkings between the voyage arid the poem. It is also one of the few surviving documents in Mrs. Stevens's own hand, and while its rather clipped and apparently hurried entries are not developed and detailed, it captures the ambience of the cruise and sketches rare portraits both of herself and her husband.

The journal, consisting of about eight hundred words, is recorded in pencil in a small (3" x 6"), dark red, paperbound notebook. It contains entries for twelve of the fifteen days and was discontinued as the liner drew near California. The remarks for October 23 appear to have been erased, and there are none for the following day, October 24, or for October 27. Sea-Voyage is reproduced here in entirety:

*              *              *

Thursday [,] October 18. [A]fter a good luncheon at the Commodore, our hotel in N.Y. since the previous Sunday, we taxied with our four suitcases to the dock and entered the boat—the large steamship "Kroonland." We were taken to our cabin which is the front end one on the starboard side, having two portholes and a door which we leave open and outside of which is a screen-door opening on a deck. I met the steward and stewardess of our cabin[,] a young English man and an Irish girl. Unpacked the necessary things while apprehensive of seasickness, especially after the boat was on its way an hour or so. The stewardess said "There are little white horses on the waters now. " I felt dizzy and went to bed early after a cup of broth.

Friday, October 19th. Do not remember whether I had breakfast but stayed in the cabin all day. My nice Irish girl brought me orange juice, and broth, and fruit.

Saturday, October 20th. Rose at 7:15, bathed, breakfasted in my cabin on orange juice, dry bacon and graham rolls and coffee[,] and then went up on deck and met W. promanading [sic]. In the afternoon, late, it was very rough off the coast of Cape Hatteras.

Sunday, October 21st. A beautiful calm day along the coast of Florida. With the aid of glasses which some passengers loaned us, we could clearly see the Casino and the Flamingo Hotel at Palm Beach, and other large white buildings in a bright green setting. Had breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining-room. Saw porpoises and flying fish.

Monday, October 22nd. Up before seven—bathed. The steward rapped on out door before we were dressed saying the doctor was on board and on deck to inspect everyone. Dressed hurriedly, but could not find the doctor—nor could anyone else so it seemed. Had breakfast and managed the exciting adventure of going down the gang-plank to the launch which took us over to the Havana dock. We left the party and walked through the interesting narrow streets by ourselves, noticing the iron balconies and the tiles on these old stone houses, many having a pink stone base about three feet high. Saw many interiors with archways and winding stairs and took a number of snap-shots.

Went around to an office where a Mr. Marvin, who W. met before, introduced us to a Mr. Whitman, the chief. Then Mr. Marvin went about with us in a Ford. We stopped to buy some cigars opposite the Presidential Palace, and went into a shop to buy a scarf— and arrived back at our launch before twelve. Must not forget to mention the pina-fria at the Lafayette Hotel[,] a delicious drink made of pineapple juice. There are no windows—only openings with shutters to close them. Saw palm trees for the first time.

Thursday, October 25th. Entered the Gatun Locks in the morning and all day went through the Panama canal, with the thickly foliaged bank on either side. Saw some straw huts of the natives—and the many wooden shelters for the employees on the canal. The day was said to be exceptionally cool, having had rain in that location for three days before. I sat up on the bridge with some others and could see on both sides as well as in front of us. The most changeable weather I have ever experienced. Rain for a few minutes –then bright hot sunlight—then rain again and sun again all afternoon. I had my umbrella and we used it for both. Arrived at Balboa in the Canal Zone at six o'clock. Quickly had dinner and went ashore. Drove through the Canal Zone and Panama City. Many interesting old Spanish churches. The women and little girls wear black scarves over their heads[,] the children looking delightfully demure with them and little black slippers and white stockings. A band stand in every green square. English is taught in the schools in the canal zone and Spanish in Panama. Our colored driver spoke English as well as any ordinary darky in Hartford, having gone to school two years and working with Americans. The doorways are very wide and we saw family groups, one after another sitting right in off the sidewalk[,] some sewing, some playing cards and others games, other[s] just talking. Saw the prison and heard some prisoners singing together . Caught glimpses of the Pacific ocean at the end of some of the streets. Large shopping district. The larger shops close at eight. The smaller ones remaining open until ten. We had to be back on ship-board by 11:30[,] the ship leaving dock at 12 o'clock.

Friday, October 26th. A calm beautiful day. Everyone resting after yesterday's standing on deck all day to see our course through the canal. Saw the spouting of whales.

Sunday, October 28th. The sea as flat and still as a pan-cake, before breakfast. Started to read Carl Van Vechten's "The Blind Bow-Boy." The wind blew up after sun-down—came through a mountain pass from the Gulf of Mexico. Dizzy, so had dinner in my room and went to bed.

Monday, October 29th. A bright calm morning. Finished "The Blind Bow-Boy" on the deck when not dozing. Quite the warmest day so far. Saw many dolphins.

Tuesday, October 30th. Warm—but calm. Had our chairs brought to the front of the deck where there was a fine breeze. Mrs. Manning and I talked about housekeeping, interior decorating and her husband's family and his business.

Wednesday, October 31st. This was a sunny calm day spent mostly in my steamer chair. A Halloween party in the evening—nearly every one en masque.

Thursday, November 1st. Cool this morning. Still plowing through the Pacific—just now near lower California. We have turned a little more northward—the sun setting directly opposite the port side, instead of forward deck.

*              *              *

Despite her problems with seasickness, Elsie Stevens emerges through these brief pages as a keenly alert observer. Her descriptions of Havana and Balboa, the city at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, are sharply vivid, her eye capturing verbal snapshots as precise as those she mentions snapping with her camera in Havana. The domestic life of Mrs. Stevens is reflected in her topics of conversation with Mrs. Manning on October 30. It may be from this exchange that she received the recipe for the frosting of a cake which is recorded on one of the back pages of the journal. Her reading of Carl Van Vechten's newly published novel, The Blind Bow-Boy, gives the lie, at least in part, to the commonly held notion that Mrs. Stevens took no interest in her husband's literary acquaintances. As editor of the magazine Trend, Van Vechten had published poems by Stevens as early as 1914 and had become acquainted with the poet and his wife on social occasions before their move from New York to Hartford in 1916. More recently, Van Vechten had been instrumental in urging Alfred A. Knopf to publish Harmonium; Stevens had sent the manuscript to Van Vechten who, in turn, had passed it on to Knopf. Only a month before the cruise, the grateful poet had sent a copy of his newly published volume to Van Vechten:. "I am sending you a copy of Harmonium—since you were its accoucheur" (L, 241).

One regrets that more detailed information about her husband is not forthcoming in Mrs. Stevens's Sea-Voyage. The poet's celebrated penchant for walking is recalled by her mention of "W. promanading" on the decks of the Kroonland the third day out. It is easy to imagine him assuming the role as guide for his wife when they sailed past Palm Beach on October 21. He had visited the city on one of his business trips to Florida in 1916. More recently, he had spent a long weekend in Havana the previous February, having sailed over from Key West after bidding farewell to his business companion for the many Florida visits, Judge Arthur Powell. He must have retraced some of his steps taken eight months earlier now at his wife's side. One wonders if the Halloween party toward the end of the voyage, "nearly everyone en masque," included the diarist and her husband.

It is unknown whether Stevens consulted Sea-Voyage in the process of writing "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," and it is possible that the various reactions of his wife to the places and episodes of the passage differed considerably from the poet's own. Even so, there are singular similarities between Elsie's notebook and the language of her husband's poem.

The journal, for example, discloses various vantage points from which Stevens enjoyed vistas of sea and clouds. From the private cabin, "two port-holes and a door which we leave open and outside of which is a screen-door opening on a deck" gave the poet a private but limited prospect. Stevens's pleasure in promenading the deck itself, however, suggests the wider view, and from the bridge where Elsie sat going through the Panama Canal on October 25, it was possible to see "on both sides as well as in front of us."

Mrs. Stevens delights in the sight of "porpoises and flying fish," "the spouting of whales," and "many dolphins." None of these found their way into the poem. Her note, however, that the sea on October 28 was "flat and still as a pan-cake" is pertinent in an important way. In fact, the calmness of the sea is remarked by Elsie on four other occasions as the liner moved north through the Pacific: it is a "calm beautiful day" on October 26; like a pancake on October 28; "A bright calm morning" on October 29; "Warm-but calm" on October 30; and "a sunny calm day" on Halloween. Having made such an impression on Mrs. Stevens, the placidity of the Pacific waters seems to have been noted with equal force by the poet. It is brought prominently into the poem.

Each of the poem's five sections begins with the "November off Tehuantepec" phrase, introducing a variable parallelism from one to the other that constitutes what John Crowe Ransom calls the "most magnificent poem, technically" of Harmonium. The succeeding line of sections I, II, and III is also identical: "The slopping of the sea grew still one night," and in IV and V the line is altered only slightly: "The night-long slopping of the sea grew still" and "Night stilled the slopping of the sea." Each section then proceeds in its third line to describe the morning sunlight streaking the deck of the ship the following day, and the activity of the bloomlike clouds upon the quietened water is then brought into play. Initially, the ocean of section I, for example, "like limpid water lay" and is a "Pacific calm." It conjures a "sinister flatness" in section 11; it is "perfected in indolence" in the final section. The dramatic climax of each section, occurring in the final four lines, involves the disturbing of the placidity as the billowing clouds, like various blooms, stir up the surface and undersurface of the sea through the observer's own power of imaginative transformation. An "enormous undulation" concludes section 11, while the "rolling heaven" of section III "Deluged the ocean with a sapphire blue." A similar rolling and heaving of the ocean marks the culmination of each section, as the poet's eye coaxes to life the activity of the clouds upon the surface, effecting in each instance "fresh transfigurings of freshest blue." In short, the poem demonstrates the potency of the imagination by its very ability to transform calmness into undulation, flatness into transfigurings, and a "malevolent sheen" into brilliant iris and blue. As if glossing this aspect of the poem in his essay "Three Academic Pieces," Stevens cites the "extraordinary transfiguration" of clouds reflected on sea. Such instances, he observes, satisfy the human craving for resemblances: "We say that the sea, when it expands in a calm and immense reflection of the sky, resembles the sky, and this statement gives us pleasure. We enjoy the resemblence for the same reason that, if it were possible to look into the sea as into glass and if we should do so and suddenly should behold there some extraordinary transfiguration of ourselves, the experience would strike us as one of those amiable revelations that nature occasionally vouchsafes to favorites" (NA, 80). For Stevens's wife, the ocean's calmness is bright, sunny, even warm. In the poem these qualities of calmness are also present, but supplemented with others: the sinister, the unnatural, even the malevolent. The need for "transfigurings" to stir up and displace that calmness is demonstrated and achieved through the directives of the individual imagination, as the twelfth line of each section emphasizes through the various French exclamations: "C'etait mon enfant, mon bijou, mon ame," etc.

A sudden quickening of the wind itself momentarily discomposes the dominant complacency of the sea. It is a phenomenon duly noted in both Sea-Voyage and "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." In Elsie's account, the "wind blew up after sun-down" on October 28, shortly after the liner had turned north, and, in spite of her repeated remarks on the calmness of the ocean's surface, she enjoys "a fine breeze" sitting on the deck two days later. In the poem, too, the "sinister flatness" described in the second section is also interrupted by "windy booms" as they "Hoo-hooed it in the darkened ocean-blooms." In the triumph of the poem's conclusion a similar process ensues:

                                The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence.

Besides the ocean's calmness and occasional gusts of wind, the unseasonably warm weather that marked the Kroonland's movement north through the Pacific denotes another parallel with the poem, In "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" it is "summer" that "hued the deck" in "that November," and, again, a "summer-seeming" that characterizes the machinery of ocean. Holly Stevens has noted in her edition of the Letters the discrepancy between the November of the poem and the October when the liner actually sailed by Tehuantepec (L, 241). A possible motive for Stevens's deliberate alteration to November may have been to provide a sharper seasonal contrast with the imagination's "summer-seeming." Sea-Voyage makes clear the extreme changes in weather that greeted the passengers' progress northward. Monday, October 29, is "Quite the warmest day so far," while three days later, as the cruiser approaches California, Mrs. Stevens finds the temperature "Cool this morning," just as it has been "exceptionally cool" while passing through the Canal a week earlier. Moreover, the abrupt alterations on that same day between rain and bright sunshine are remarked with some astonishment: "The most changeable weather I ever experienced." The convergence of "November" and "summer-seeming" in the poem may have been prompted by" these noted alterations in weather recorded by Stevens's wife.

It is, in fact, the activity, or lack thereof, in the motions of the sea, the agitations of the wind, and the vicissitudes in climate that point to the closest correlations between the settings of the actual voyage and those of the poem. There are further notations from the. Sea-Voyage, however, that suggest possible sources for some of the central images of the poem.

Mrs. Stevens's mention of the use of her umbrella for protection from both sun and rain while passing through the Canal on October 25 introduces the possibility that other passengers as well may have found use for parasols. In any case, umbrellas, along with chocolates, are colorfully incorporated into each section of the poem. Whimsically and playfully describing the impression of the sun-streaked deck that succeeds the stilled sea of the night before, the umbrellas help to define the variety of moods ("make one think of . . .") with which the speaker views sea, clouds, and air. They also contribute to the poem's larger effect, coming ''as near a tone-poem, in the musical sense, as language can come," according to R.P . Blackmur: "rosy chocolate! And gilt umbrellas" in section I; "chop- house chocolate! And sham umbrellas" in the next section; "porcelain chocolate! And pied umbrellas" in III; "musky chocolate! And frail umbrellas" in a less dazzling impression in IV; and, finally, "Chinese chocolate! And large umbrellas." Serving as protection for Mrs. Stevens from outer weather, umbrellas sportively project the weather of the imagination in her husband's poem.

The atmosphere of easeful hours in deck-chairs, with Mrs. Stevens reading Van Vechten "when not dozing," has a counterpart as "A mallow morning dozed upon the deck" in the fourth section of the poem. One speculates, too, about the influence of the Halloween masquerade party, "nearly everyone en masque," while the poet was sketching his own costumes of cloud and water in the poem . Especially in the fourth section, the "figures of the clouds" are paraded upon the water, first as blooms, but then as characters in a sexual extravaganza: "Like damasks that were shaken off! From the loosed girdles." What follows is indeed a masquerade: "The nakedness would rise and suddenly turn! Salt masks of beard and mouths of bellowing." The party of revelers is interrupted as the "heaven rolled," dissolving the "masks" and transforming the "nakedness" back to "blooms." In the following section, however, the masquerade resumes, this time "the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo."

After completing "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" in 1924, Stevens stopped writing poetry for several years. Preoccupied with business interests and intent upon professional advancement, he discontinued the practice of sending out poems to the magazines. A decade later he was named vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. His interest in writing seems to have resumed shortly before. Earlier, when the second edition of Harmonium was issued in 1931, Stevens added "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" and a handful of other poems, most of them written years before. The completion of that poem now appears to have marked a boundary in Stevens's evolving career as a poet; he was willing to let the record rest thereafter, at least for the next few years.

The poem itself seems always to have been a favorite, possibly because of its associations with the Kroonland voyage with his wife. He included it in a selection he made for an unpublished collection of his poems in 1950, and also for the Selected Poems published in England by Faber and Faber in 1953. He recommended the poem to Renato Poggioli in 1953 as a "good poem to help fill the space" for an Italian edition of his poems. Over thirty years after the passage through the Gulf of Tehuantepec, Stevens fondly recalled "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" by designating its title for one of his recently acquired paintings by Jean Jules Cavailles. It is the Sea-Voyage itself, however, that draws the reader of Stevens's poem closest to the personal experience that engendered it. It also invites a rare opportunity to speculate on the process by which Stevens converted details of personal experience into one of his major poems.

from "Mrs. Wallace Stevens' 'Sea Voyage' and 'Sea Surface Full of Clouds.'" American Poetry 3:3 (Spring 1986), 76-84.

Joan Richardson

After the publication of Harmonium on September 7 [1923], but wisely before the first reviews, Stevens left with Elsie on the only extended holiday they had taken since their marriage fourteen years before. On October 18 they sailed on a beautiful sea-keen ship, appropriately named – for one who loved puns – the Kroonland. "Paradisal green / Gave suavity to the perplexed machine / Of ocean" and to Stevens for these two weeks, that began a two-month suspension from the cares of the everyday world.

After this, things would never be the same. As Stevens commemorated in "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," a poem that has been celebrated as the most perfect example of a "pure poem" (John Crowe Ransom also noted, without knowing the poem’s occasion, that to contemplate it was to become happy), "In that November off Tehuantepec" their only child was conceived. Spooning and crooning one night when the "slopping of the sea grew still," Wallace and Elsie, like "the sea / And heaven rolled as one from the two / Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue" in the eyes of the girl they named Holly nine months later. Out of this voyage into nothingness came a new beginning. …"

from Joan Richardson, Wallace Stevens, A Biography: The Later Years. 1923-1955 (New York: William Morrow, 1988), 22.

James Longenbach

Often considered the purest of Stevens’ poems, bearing no "relation" to society (in Wilson's terms), "Sea Surface" is really his best approximation in poetry of what a claims man's work is like on a bad day. If surety claims at all resemble poems because they offer a refreshing variety within a framework of similarity, then "Sea Surface" is a bridge game in which all tricks are the same, or (more to the point) a poem in which all iambic pentameter lines are identical: "In that November off Tehuantepec" begins each of the five movements of the poem. The movements play variations on the sun's rise on the ship's deck, which may make one "think of rosy chocolate / And gilt umbrellas" or "chop-house chocolate / And sham umbrellas" or "porcelain chocolate / And pied umbrellas" or "musky chocolate/ And frail umbrellas." The water's green may be, in turn, paradisiacal, sham-like, uncertain, or too-fluent. The machine of ocean may be perplexed, tense, tranced, or dry. Those two parties, variously denoted, may stand to each other in the relation of giving suavity, capping summer-seeming, holding piano-polished, or suggesting malice. This is a poem written by a claims man, late one night, filling in the standard forms with different names, and having trouble isolating any life beyond this sheet of paper.

Know All Men by These Presents.

That ……………of……………….as Principal and……………of……………….
as Surety are held and firmly bound unto…………………of……………in the penal
sum of……………..Dollars to the payment whereof to the said…………they bind
their heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns.

Whereas the said……………….has been employed by the said………………..as

Now, therefore, the condition of the foregoing obligation is that if the said
……....... shall well and truly perform the duty of……………..then this bond
shall be null and void, otherwise it shall be in full force and effect.

Signed, sealed and dated this ………….. day of……….. 19.…..

With a self-consciousness that is difficult to measure, "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" is more or less calculatedly monotonous. The poem commemorates the sea voyage during which Stevens's daughter was conceived, and the force of the poem's final lines, invoking that event, depends on their contrast with the increasingly tedious repetitions that precede them: "Then the sea / And heaven rolled as one and from the two / Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue." Just what kind of transfiguration Stevens had in mind is not clear. Each movement of "Sea Surface" pushes for some kind of unveiling, especially the fourth, where the too-fluent green suggests malice in the dry machine of ocean. But each movement is checked by stasis, and the poem's structural repetitions overcome the wish for difference. To use the terms of "Surety and Fidelity Claims," "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" reveals a mind made of papers, a mind too immature to see a world alive and expanding beyond the page. As Stevens said in "The Noble Rider," speaking out of his own fears, "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real."

To continue with the terms of "Surety and Fidelity Claims," Stevens wrote a more mature poem than "Sea Surface" on Valentine's Day in 1925. These occasional verses are perhaps the only poetic effort Stevens mustered during the second silence.

Though Valentine brings love
And Spring brings beauty
They do not make me rise
To my poetic duty

But Elsie and Holly do
And do it daily--
Much more than Valentine or Spring
And very much more gaily.

If "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" is as close as Stevens could come to the work of surety bonds, then these lines are as far away from that work as he could get. To say so seems willfully paradoxical, since "Sea Surface" is one of Stevens's most esoteric poems, while this Valentine's Day verse is among his most occasional. But "Sea Surface" comes close to surety bonds precisely because it is so self-enclosed; it is to poetry what suretyship is to insurance--like the department of Oriental languages at the university. In contrast, the Valentine's Day poem (though much closer to the daily life that surety bonds engage) stands utterly apart from the discourse of suretyship. As a poem about "poetic duty," it is itself paradoxical since Stevens wrote almost no other poetry in the later 1920s. The poem suggests that Stevens fulfilled his duty to his family by rising at daybreak, shaving, exercising, eating his therapeutic breakfast, walking to work, and putting in his full day at the Hartford. Such actions became his "poetic duty" when they helped him out of the aesthetic cul-de-sac epitomized by "Sea Surface Full of Clouds."

From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.

Ricki Lee Silverman

Because "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" illustrates unlimited imagination, critics tend to minimize Stevens's choice of five sections--five very formal sections--for the poem. Even while admitting that this is a "rare example in Stevens of set form," Riddel says that the poem is "arbitrarily limited to five distinct impressions" (44). Richarson also acknowledges the poem's prominent structure, pointing out that a four-section "Sea Surface" would contain the 24 stanzas of the danse macabre (63). But the poem does contain five sections, even if they only describe "five out of an infinite series of possible scenes" (Litz 48). The underlying themes of "Sea Surface" and the use of the number five in other poems suggest that Stevens chose the number advisedly.

"Sea Surface" delights the five senses. "[C]hop-house chocolate" and "ambrosial latitudes" awaken taste. Smell is tantalized with "rainy hyacinth" and "musky chocolate." Touch is suggestively aroused in "loosened girdles" and "nakedness." Sight is stimulated by the "clearing opalescence" of the poem's vast palette and the undulation of the shifting blooms. But sound is the most vivid sense, not only in specific instances such as the "voluble" day, but in the incantational charm of the entire poem's language. The poem is readily perceived as a paean to the five senses, and, in the most positive interpretation, it does indeed reflect Stevens's belief that "the imagination redeems itself continually by creative acts, transposing drab existence ... into a secular and always sufficient paradise" (LaGuardia ix). Yet words such as "sham" and "malevolent" make clear that even in Tehuantepec another reality intrudes upon sensual pleasure. Richarson argues that the poem's dissonant notes reflect Stevens's "Puritan ... sense of sin" (65), but the tone of indolent pleasure suggests not so much a sense of sin as chagrin that the five senses have the power to thoroughly transfix.

In addition to the occasionally discordant language, there are other indications that a life of sensuality is alluring but superficial. In a typically loaded title, Stevens reveals that the lovely world he describes is really an inadequate life of sensation without introspection. The poem can only "see" surfaces--cloudy surfaces at that. The sky and sea reflect but remain unplumbed. The setting, "November off Tehuantepec," is repeated five times, drawing attention to the incongruence of a cold month and a hot place. The pairing suggests a link between the chilly intellect and sultry body; yet there is a sense of estrangement, too, since November is "off" (not "in" or even "near") Tehuantepec.

The theme of fives recurs in the poem's French phrases. The poem asks five times who, or what, beholds the sea's changes. The answer is an increasingly remorseful c'etait, "it used to be," an action completed not only in the past, but in the imperfect past tense. Stevens's contentment with the world of the five senses belongs to a past now foreign to him.

The insufficiency of the senses is also voiced in Stevens's "Anglais Mort a Florence," where "delight ... left him unconsoled," and in "The Souls of Women at Night," where in losing "the five-times sensed ... nothing has been lost." Yet movement beyond five to six occurs in poems such as "Song Fixed" ("The sun of five, the sun of six") and "Extract" ("Ideas or, say, five men, or possibly, six").

"Sea Surface," however, remains rigidly at five. The result is a strict from that seems at odds with its luxuriant content. If "the intricate form and the elaborate word-play serve an almost ritualistic function" (Litz 147), the five sections can be likened to the five angles of a pentacle which, circumscribed by enchanting, "too-fluent" language, do achieve a ritualistic function: Stevens creates a magic circle. Perhaps "Stevens was drawn neither to mathematics nor to mysticism" (Patke 119); nevertheless, he uses both in this poem to achieve a perfection and completion that he seems to know are contrived. The fixed structure shows that a life of the senses is a life of confinement.

But Stevens has not "painted himself into an aesthetic corner" (Litz 48). While the pleasure of the five senses peaks with the distinctly sexual language of the third section (Richarson 64), the fourth section describes the evershifting blooms as "damasks." Damask is a single fabric with patterns on both of its sides, evidence that the separate sea and sky (or body and mind) can merge without diminishing the distinct power of either. The fifth and final section makes the union of body and mind more explicit. After "l'ignominie" of a solipsistic, sensual life is admitted, the clouds (sky/intellect) become "sovereign" but the conch (sea/body) "trumped," too--both forces triumph. The awakening "conch of loyal conjuration" and penetrating "wind of green blooms" rouse the poem to its full sensual and intellectual vigor. Now and only now can "the sea and heaven roll as one." The poem is posied for the crucial sixth step.


LaGuardia, David M. Advance on Chaos: The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace Stevens. Hanover: Brown UP, 1983.

Litz, A. Walton. Introspective Voyager. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

Patke, Rajeer S. The Long Poems of Wallace Stevens: An Interpretive Study. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Richarson, Joan. "A Reading of 'Sea Surface Full of Clouds.'" Wallace Stevens Journal 6 (fall 1982): 60--68.

Riddel, Joseph N. The Clairvoyant Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1965.

from The Explicator 51.3 (Spring 1993)

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