The Emperor of Ice-Cream


The Emperor of Ice-Cream

The Emperor of Ice-Cream: "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is a poem from Wallace Stevens's first collection of poetry, Harmonium. It was first published in 1922, and is in the public domain. Stevens' biographer, Paul Mariani, identifies the poem as one of Stevens' personal favorites from the Harmonium collection.The poem "wears a deliberately commonplace costume", he wrote in a letter, "and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry; that is the reason why I like it".

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The simple poetic structure is of two stanzas related by an identical closing verse in each stanza. The poem is only clarified in its allusion upon completion of the reading of the second stanza which identifies a "cold" and "dumb" body as common references to a dead body. In this case a dead body is being prepared for a funeral.[4] According to the critic Helen Vendler, quoted by Austin Allen, the ice-cream in the poem is being prepared for serving at a funeral wake. The use of holiday sweets and heavy desserts for funerals is part of the culture of varying civilizations. In this case the reference is likely to pre-Castro Cuba, which Stevens visited during business trips to Florida. The "emperor" of ice cream is illustrated through imagery by Stevens as sufficiently ruddy to churn the ice-cream and blend its sugar in order to make the customary funeral treat used in the country. Thomas C. Grey in his book on Stevens sees the poem as a harsh didactic lesson studying the use of the metaphor of "coldness" in Stevens. As Grey states: "Stevens knows the corruptions of coldness as well as its beauties. Chief among them is the heartless selfishness, represented by the sweet sinister cold of 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream.' In the kitchen a cigar-rolling man whips 'concupiscent curds' of ice cream as the wenches come and go; in the adjoining bedroom, a dead woman lies in undignified discard, 'cold ... and dumb' under a sheet, her horny feet protruding. Both rooms teach the cynical wisdom that 'The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream': what you see is what you get; look out for Number One; enjoy the sweet cold before the bitter cold claims you." According to Norman Foerster, instigator of the New Humanist movement in American criticism, this poem has been discussed for a long time, but maybe we mistake an exact meaning. Foerster wrote: “At this funeral (or wake) there is to be neither the pretense nor the fact of morbid grief.” These are expressed by ice-cream in this poem. At the same time there is neither disrespect for the dead nor a blinking of the fact of poverty and death. The world of his poem is a realistic and stable one. According to Syunsuke Kamei, an honorary professor at the University of Tokyo and a scholar of American literature, this poem was composed by Stevens for his daughter. Stevens had a strong sense of fulfillment of life. He did not see death in a special light. This poem is telling us to take things easy, but seriously. Ice cream is an incarnation of a sense of fulfillment. It is easily melted, but it is a natural thing. Stevens tells us to enjoy the ice cream now. Ice-cream is a symbol of the summit of ordinary people’s delight.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

“The Emperor of Ice Cream” is one of Wallace Stevens’s most famous and most notoriously ambiguous poems. It’s hard to pin down the poem’s themes precisely—indeed, that’s probably deliberate on Stevens’s part—but the poem definitely presents a juxtaposition between the way things appear to be and the way things actually are. The mysterious speaker of the poem seems to construct an argument in favor of acknowledging reality—including the finality of death—over being deceived by illusory appearances. The poem takes place at a wake or funeral, with preparations taking place in what appears to be someone's home. The first stanza is about making these ritualistic preparations for the ceremony, while the second stanza discusses how to handle the dead body (revealed to be that of an old woman). In both sections, the speaker fixates on the contrast between “being” and “seeming”—between reality and appearances. For example, the speaker tells the “wenches” to put on the “dress […] they are used to wear.” The word “wenches” might refer female servants, prostitutes, or simply girls; in any case, these are implied to be working-class women whose typical “dress” wouldn't be fancy. Flowers, meanwhile, should be brought wrapped in “last month’s newspapers.” These two instructions perhaps reflect the speaker’s wish to strip any illusory appearances from reality. That is, the women shouldn’t dress in a way that is somehow different, and the flowers similarly don’t require fancy ribbons or wrapping paper. In fact, the flowers’ covering might even be thought of as actually capturing reality, as the newspapers report actual events. The poem suggests that there’s no real benefit to dressing things up to seem better than they are—especially in the face of death (again, this all takes place at a wake or funeral of some sort). This idea is strengthened by the last two lines of the first stanza: “Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” The first of these two lines addresses this theme head on: let “be” (how things actually are) “be" the "finale” (the ending) of “seem” (false appearances). In other words, let reality dispel the magic of illusions. Perhaps this relates to death, with the speaker expressing the way that death, as life’s only real certainty, strips away any world of appearances that people might construct for themselves during their earthly lives. The repeated line about the “emperor of ice cream” also seems to strengthen this reading. An “emperor of ice-cream” is a kind of oxymoron: emperors are supposed to be mighty, powerful figures, meaning that being an emperor of ice-cream sounds like a kind of joke title. This might be similar to the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, suggesting that power is itself a kind of illusion (and therefore an appearance that needs to be replaced by reality). The speaker’s instructions for the handling of the dead body also contribute to this implicit argument against illusory appearances. Though the speaker wants the body to be covered with “embroidered fantails” (a decorative sheet) as a kind of tribute to the woman, it doesn’t matter whether it fully covers her. If her feet poke out, then so be it; they are simply a reflection of the stark reality that this woman is “cold,” dead, and “dumb.” Accordingly, the “lamp” should “affix its beam”—it should cast an unflinching light on reality for all to see. And as if to underscore this point, the poem then repeats its key line: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” People shouldn’t put so much emphasis on appearances, the poem suggests, and should instead embrace the reality of life, death, and who they are.

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