Sea Surface Full of Clouds

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)

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………………



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.

Joan Richardson: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

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.

Jonathan Holden: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

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.

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.