A. Walton Litz: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

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 University Press, 1972), 150-151.


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