Ricki Lee Silverman: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

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)


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