A critical reading of a mysterious poem
‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ may well qualify for the accolade of ‘most baffling poem of the entire twentieth century’. Written by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) and published in his 1923 volume Harmonium, the poem is in the public domain according to Wikipedia, so we reproduce it below, along with a brief analysis of the poem’s meaning and language. Who, or what, is the Emperor of Ice-Cream?
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.
What is this curious poem saying? What is ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ about? These questions have perplexed readers and critics for nearly a century now, but there are a number of things we can declare with some certainty.
First, we can summarise the poem as follows. ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ is in two stanzas, both comprising eight lines. The first stanza is spoken by what Helen Vendler, in an important analysis of the poem, calls ‘an unknown master of ceremonies’. This impresario gives out orders, demanding that a well-built man who works in a cigar-rolling factory whip up some ice-cream – for some guests, we surmise. He says let the ‘wenches’ (girls, though a more pejorative term) wear what they would normally wear; whatever event they are getting ready for, they needn’t get dressed up for. It is then requested that the boys bring flowers wrapped ‘in last month’s newspapers’. Then things get more abstract: ‘Let be be finale of seem.’ Then we have a reference to the poem’s title, and are cryptically informed, ‘The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.’ We’ll return to this enigmatic statement shortly.
To continue the summary: from this talk of people being commanded to make certain preparations – which are, as Helen Vendler also pointed out, for a funeral – we then move, in the second stanza, to the room in which the solitary corpse of the dead woman is lying in state. This master of ceremonies continues to give commands, asking that a sheet (on which the dead woman, when alive, embroidered fantails – small birds native to Asia and Australia) be taken from the dresser (which has three glass knobs missing from it), to cover the dead woman’s face. If the woman’s feet stick out from the end (they are ‘horny’ because they are covered in unsightly bunions), because the sheet isn’t long enough to cover both her face and feet, we are told this doesn’t matter: far from being indecorous, it actually highlights the woman’s status as a dead person, her body cold, unable to make a sound. The ‘lamp’ should ‘affix its beam’ and shine fully on the woman: no hiding away her dead body and bunions from view. The poem then ends with the same line repeated from the end of the first stanza. But we remain in the dark about who this ‘emperor of ice-cream’ really is. Who is he?
Once we understand that the poem is about a funeral, things begin to make more sense. The cryptic command, ‘Let be be finale of seem’, follows three commands to do things which go against the usual social expectations for funerals: making ice-cream into ‘concupiscent curds’ (‘concupiscent’ meaning ‘filled with lust or sexual desire’: hardly appropriate for a solemn funeral), the women not getting dressed up in mourning clothes, the boys bringing flowers not neatly and decorously arranged but placed in last month’s newspapers, like a bag of chips. Last month’s newspapers are a modern symbol of the ephemeral: newspapers are relevant only so long as the news remains new, which usually isn’t long.
This idea of recycling an old sheet (of newspaper) for the funeral arrangements might also be said to prefigure the makeshift funeral sheet that is placed over the dead woman’s face in the second stanza: where ‘once’ (a stinging word, that) the woman embroidered fantails on the sheet, now she, hardly able to fly away, is draped unceremoniously in it. But the speaker of the poem is adamant: ‘Let be [i.e. reality] be finale of seem [i.e. illusion]’. Rather than dress up the funeral in false and insincere trappings and details, show things the way they actually are, after all. Life will go on after this woman’s death, so there’s no point the women dressing up and putting on a show of mourning. The flowers will soon be as irrelevant as last month’s newspapers, so one may as well wrap the former in the latter.
Similarly, in that second stanza, leave the woman’s feet poking out, the sheet not long enough to cover them. We should be prepared to face up to the realities of death and to confront the physicality of a dead body, warts (or bunions) and all. In this interpretation of the poem, so much is clear. But where does this leave us with the emperor of ice-cream?
Given that the poem begins with a call for ice-cream to be made into sexually erotic ‘curds’, it’s possible that Wallace Stevens intends for the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ to be interpreted as a symbol for life itself: the realities of life with its lust and desire and transience. It may even be that this ‘emperor’ is the one who speaks the commands in the poem’s two stanzas. The only emperor, then, the only ruler who has a sovereign claim on us, is the one that stands for ice-cream: life, desire, feeling, as well as joy and celebration (ice cream being associated with summer holidays among other things). But what complicates this is the coldness of ice-cream, which, given the coldness of the dead woman’s body in the second stanza, raises the spectre of death: is the emperor of ice-cream a symbol of life or death? Death, after all, is the one who holds court at all funerals. Has the Grim Reaper traded in his scythe for a Mr Whippy van? Is that repeated line supposed to be haunting rather than celebratory: the only master who matters is the one who claims all of us – Death himself?
The poem remains an elusive and enigmatic one, and this analysis can only go so far towards raising some of the key questions (or what we view as key questions; others may differ). Who do you think the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ is? And what is Wallace Stevens saying about death?
Image: Black sesame soft ice cream in Kakunodate, Akita, Japan, 2003 (picture credit: Kwekwe), Wikimedia Commons.
In an imperative voice, the poem’s speaker summons a muscular man, known for rolling big cigars. He is asked to whip up ice cream in kitchen cups, which seems delicious and alluring. Girls hang out in their everyday clothes, and boys arrive with flowers wrapped in old newspaper. The line “Let be be finale of seem” seems to be a command by the speaker of the poem to let reality, pure and simple (“be”), replace any suppositions or conjectures we might try to make about the scene (“seem”). The first stanza ends by declaring ice cream the “only emperor.”
The second stanza shifts scene, starting with a command to look through an old, cheap dresser for a sheet embroidered with birds. We are told the embroidery was the handiwork of a woman, who is now dead, whose face the sheet is being spread out to cover. However, the sheet is so short that her old, callused feet stick out the end, and demonstrate even more bluntly how lifeless she is. The speaker commands the lamp to be directed towards the body. In this light, the speaker repeats the first stanza’s assertion of ice cream as the supreme ruler.
The defining energy of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is its sharp contrast between images of life and death. Two stanzas form this duality: the first presents a scene of life, and the second a scene of death. The stanzas take place in two separate rooms, creating a spatial as well as symbolic binary (appropriately, the Italian root of “stanza” is the word for “room”). Given the poem’s expectedly strict dichotomy between life and death, the surprising, even grotesque physical details of both scenes are what emphasize the poem’s primary point: the necessity of the discordant, animal energies of life as an alternative to the harsh physical fact of death.
As is often the case with Stevens' poems, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream” makes a claim about the nature of pure, basic human existence. In this case, however, Stevens explores this topic through a theatrical, demonstrative poem that embodies the disordered vivacity of life—not, for instance, the extremely sparse language and unattainable mental objectivity in “The Snow Man.” In stanza one, an ice cream party takes on surprisingly lustful tones due to Stevens’ word choice. As soon as he is introduced, the cigar roller’s masculinity is subtly emphasized by the phallic image of his “big cigars,” the mention of his muscles, and even the fierce, primal word “whip,” which, because it ends a line, raises readers’ expectations as to whom or what the man may be whipping. The most conspicuous word choice is “concupiscent,” an extravagant word that lends a mood of luxury to the scene and assigns the ice cream curds the surprising trait of being sexually desirous. Ice cream, then, is sharpened with a symbolically erotic and sensual edge.
Without this precedent, the dawdling wenches and flower-bearing boys might appear innocent, but given the tone, they also inevitably evoke romance and dalliance. The girls’ dawdling, and the speaker’s focus on their clothes, create an atmosphere of suspension, as if they are waiting for physical fulfillment. This fulfillment could perhaps come from the cigar man, or perhaps from the boys who enter carrying romantic symbols, if the girls are younger: the uncertainty of their ages adds to the sense of disorderly lust. The outdated newspapers, amid the waiting, imply a lack of responsibility on the part of the youths: no tasks to complete, an unhurried existence partly outside of time. The cryptic line, “Let be be finale of seem,” calls on us to accept this physical reality, in all its strangeness, as a plain fact: no further speculation. The title line, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream,” declares that, in this carnival of the kitchen, ice cream reigns supreme as the exemplary symbol of pleasure and indulgence. The rhyme that links these two lines establishes a final, declarative tone, urging us to accept reality as it is, and let ice cream have supreme importance for the day.
Stanza two switches focus drastically, still presenting specific, physical imagery, but now images of lack instead of excess. The cheap dresser, missing three knobs, evokes incompleteness, the loose ends of an ended life. Perhaps the woman, now deceased, fell ill before she got a chance to replace the knobs. A remnant of her creativity, in the form of an embroidered sheet, now poignantly serves only to cover her face; it, too, is incomplete, as it is too short to fully cover her. If the sheet, with its classically poetic symbol of birds, represents human-made art, its failure to completely hide the corpse demonstrates the inability of humans ever to fully ignore or disguise death using art, euphemism, or even poetry. An unexpected rhyme (come / dumb) emphasizes the finality of the death, as does the abrupt end of the phrase "and dumb," oddly positioned at the end of its sentence. Because the grotesque physical fact of the woman’s dead feet cannot be ignored, the speaker accepts it by ordering the light to be focused, presumably on the body.
The second stanza, shifting to the poem's second scene, brings into sharper relief the vivacious decadence of the first: only then do we realize that the boys’ flowers are likely brought for the funeral, but that their purpose has been symbolically sidetracked. Moreover, the woman’s “horny feet” contrast with the cigar roller’s muscles—flesh that is inert and useless rather than alive and capable—and given the connotation of “horny,” the woman represents the death of sexuality, in contrast with the lust in the kitchen. The first stanza’s characters’ apparent lack of attention to the death seems to assert an ironic fact of life: that we ignore certain tragedies in order to keep living.
This moment of the poem brings to clarity a choice that the speaker must make. Does the speaker linger in the kitchen with the ice cream eaters, oblivious to the death in the other room, or go face the cold reality of the corpse? The speaker does the latter, confronting the horny feet in the lamp light. However, having faced the dead body, the speaker seems to realize he must choose life over death, must eventually return to the ice cream party, even though life is naturally gaudy, crude, and full of animalistic desire. So, the speaker repeats the declaration that ultimately, the “emperor” of human life is ice cream, or what it represents: the disorderly, indulgent desires and instincts in which we all participate. The use of one final rhyme (beam / ice cream) emphasizes causality between the two last lines: because the speaker has faced the cold light of death, he is even more sure that if anything can offer meaning to life, it is the kind of vivacity symbolized by ice cream.