“The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens
The Emperor of Ice Cream is one of the most famous poems written by the American poet Wallace Stevens. Published first in 1923, it is almost nonsensical at first glance. Slowly some (disputable) meaning emerges. For so far as we can say, it describes a funeral-an angry, happy, sad, joyous paradox—in which mourners at a wake are called to order by the writer.
“Call…bid…Let…Bring…Take…spread”, the poem directs behaviour. Like any occasion in which humans gather, it sets out the etiquette for sharing a moment, instructing and admonishing both the living and the dead.
The poem starts with the words in which the speaker directs that it is the moment to call a person who can roll cigars so that he can ‘whip’ up some ice cream from ‘concupiscent curds’ in the kitchen. The poet has chooses an odd word (concupiscent means lusty). There are young girls hanging around in their dresses while the young boys bring flowers enveloped in old newspapers. The last two lines of the first stanza are tough; “Let be be finale of seem” refers to his desire to let things that “seem” like each other end, and rather see things objectively for how they are. Consequently, bringing an end to comparisons such as similes and metaphor. Also, “the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” means that imagination is the king of all things. Since “the emperor of ice cream” is simply a figment of imagination, he claims that the way humans perceive and imagine things to be becomes the way they truly are. Therefore, imagination is the ruler of all things.
The stanza as a whole seems to focus on things that are short-lived: ice cream (which needs to be eaten quickly or it melts), sexual desire (through the use of the word concupiscent), youth (the “wenches” and “boys”), flowers (which die quickly once picked), and “newspapers of last month” because newspapers are things that are good and true for only a short time, and last month’s would be out of date. So, when the speaker says that “the emperor alone is the emperor of ice-cream,” he may mean that the richest person is the one who lives in the moment, who knows that the present (and his appetite and youthfulness and beauty and good things) is all that we really have.
The second stanza seems to focus on the preparing of a corpse to bury. There is a “dresser of deal” that probably refers to a cheap coffin, a “sheet” that the dead woman once embroidered with birds, and someone “spreads it so as to cover her face.” Her “horny feet” (they have to be calloused) may stick out and show “how cold she is;” the body of the woman is cold because she is no longer alive. Maybe somebody places a lamp near her so mourners can see her better. Eventually, the speaker repeats the notion that “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream,” as if to warn us that this will be the future for all of us at some stage, and so the way to make ourselves rich is to revel in the present: to enjoy the flowers and the ice cream now, so to speak, because these beauties won’t last.
Questions and Answers
1. What kind of ceremony is taking place in this poem?
A wake is being held.
2. The speaker suggests that the girls wear their everyday dresses and that the boys bring flowers “in last month’s newspapers.” What does this say about his attitude towards ceremony and propriety?
Answers may vary. Example: The speaker scoffs a bit (but not scornfully) at the formal ceremony and he sees no reason to dress up the fact that a woman is dead.
3. What do you think the speaker means by the line “Let be be finale of seem”?
Answers may vary. Example: The speaker means that we should stop worrying about how things seem or look to others and simply let them be as they are.
4. What do you think the speaker means by the poem’s refrain of “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream”?
Answers may vary. Example: This assertion is related to the speaker’s suggestion that we let “be be finale of seem.” We invest emperors and ceremonies with ridiculous power and meaning, taking them too seriously. The speaker is pointing this out. Alternative interpretations abound:
• despite death, the sweetness of life still exists
• the only important thing is life
• the only important thing is death
• both life and the end of life are to be savored etc.