Wallace Stevens – The Emperor of Ice Cream

980 words | 4 page(s)

Wallace Stevens is one of the major American poets of the twentieth century, a prominent representative of modernism, who won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize. His poetry is often characterized as being philosophical, whimsical, enigmatic, and full of gaudy and memorable imagery. One of the most renowned poems by Wallace Stevens is “The Emperor of Ice Cream”.

This poem is concise but dense with meaning. It has only two stanzas, eight lines each. The seventh and the eighth line of the first and the second stanzas rhyme, with the eighth line being the same in both stanzas.

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“The Emperor of Ice Cream” tells a story of a preparation to the wake in honor of a deceased woman. We understand that the events probably take place in a Latin-American community because “the roller of big cigars” is invited to prepare ice cream for the wake feast. The description of the dead woman’s “horny feet” gives us an idea that she was old. We can also conclude that the deceased was poor because her dresser is made “of deal”, which is a cheap kind of wood, and misses “the three glass knobs”. It is also said that the sheet which should be used “to cover her face” may be too short to reach her legs at the same time. The possible reason for it is that the woman either cut off some fabric from the sheet to spare it for other needs, or bought a smaller bedsheet from the start to save money. I think that the narrator of the poem is the deceased woman’s relative who organizes the wake. Most of the sentences of “The Emperor of Ice Cream” concern the event preparation and are imperative which may lead to the conclusion that the orders are given by the narrator to a third party. But, in my opinion, these are the thoughts of her relative who tries to mentally create the list of what should be done for the wake, prepares him/herself for what is to be expected during the event, and contemplates death, life and their significance. I think the lines “Take from the dresser of deal, / Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet / On which she embroidered fantails once . . .”, specifically the embroidery mentioned in them, prove that the narrator knew the deceased well and feels emotional connection toward her. There seems to be sadness and the feeling of loss in this sentence which signifies that the narrator is the relative.

Except for the last two lines in each, the mood and the atmosphere of the first stanza contrasts the ones of the second stanza. The events of the two stanzas also occur in different parts of the house/apartment. The first six lines of the poem depict a vivid, playful and frivolous climate of the wake preparation. The “muscular” cook of the ice cream whips “concupiscent curds”, “. . . the wenches dawdle in such dress / As they are used to wear”, “. . . the boys / Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers”. As we can see, the wake preparations and the wake itself are full of flirting (as the words “muscular”, “concupiscent”, and “wenches” suggest), socializing and certain disrespect. People came to the event to have fun rather than to honor the memory of the deceased. They also treat the wake very casually: girls wear their regular dresses, and boys wrap flowers in “last month’s newspapers”. At the same time, the events of the second stanza take place in the room with the dead woman who seems to be forgotten by everyone. This place is quiet, lonely, and sad. Its only visitor is the person who came to cover the woman’s face with the embroidered sheet.

The main idea of the poem can be concluded from the two last lines of each stanza. The description of the lively wake preparation ends with the sentences: “Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The scene in the dead woman’s room is finalized with the words: “Let the lamp affix its beam. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The sentence, “Let be be finale of seem,” can mean the call to let “be” replace “seem”, or, in other words, to let realism replace idealism and illusion. This line can refer to death as being the end of all illusions. It also can be interpreted as a justification for the behavior of the wake visitors. They are pragmatic and do not want to waste their time on mourning or to pretend they regard the event with reverence.

The line, “Let the lamp affix its beam,” corresponds a similar idea. The beam of the lamp brings associations with morgue and interrogations. It is the harsh light of reality which can be unpleasant, but one cannot ignore it. The repetitive and conclusive sentence, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream,” finalizes the main idea of the poem. Ice cream is the dessert served on the wake. It is desired by everyone and can symbolize pleasures of life and our rush for consumption. Ice cream is also nondurable: it melts fast. So this dessert reminds us about time and its transiency. The coldness of ice cream can associate it with death. So “the emperor of ice cream” can be interpreted as the ruling principle for human beings whose main purpose of existence is to enjoy life and seek pleasure in it without wasting any time. That is to say, the line, “the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream,” embodies “carpe diem” and “memento mori” rules: one should enjoy every moment of his/her life because death will soon deprive him/her of such a possibility. We can also conclude that the poem announces the win of the reality of life over the futile misconceptions about death, the priority of realism over illusions.

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