George S. Lensing: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

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 Sea-Voyage, a previously unpublished Journal kept by Mrs.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" ofHarmonium. 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-Voyagemakes 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 theSelected 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.


Title George S. Lensing: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author George S. Lensing Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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