James Longenbach: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

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.


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