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"The Emperor of Ice-Cream" by Wallace Stevens: Poem Analysis

Wallace Stevens—An Emperor of Poetry?

Wallace Stevens—An Emperor of Poetry?

Wallace Stevens and a Summary of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

"The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is one of Wallace Stevens's most popular poems. It is a free verse spectacular with exotic language, a rich interior and a philosophical message. Plus, it has plenty of ice-cream.

Was there an influence leading to the creation of this poem?

Well, for many years, Wallace Stevens would take his holidays in Florida. Key West, where many Cubans worked in cigar factories, was a favourite place of his. According to Elizabeth Bishop (a fellow poet), African Americans would also eat ice-cream at local funerals.

Whether Wallace Stevens witnessed any specific events like a funeral is unknown, but he would without doubt have been aware of the ethnic traditions of the area.

"The Emperor of Ice-Cream" first appeared in Wallace Stevens' 1923 book Harmonium. When this slim volume was published, it changed the world of poetry. No one had seen anything quite like it.

Some thought the book fresh, visionary and groundbreaking. Most wanted to throw it out the window; such was their shock at the language used and some of the titles offered:

  • "O, Florida, Venereal Soil"
  • "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"
  • "Anecdote of the Jar"
  • "Thirteen ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

Poetry lovers are still feuding over the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Some claim that his work is full of obscure, overcooked bric-a-brac and gobbledygook. Exotic, timeless, truly philosophical, comes the reply.

One thing most friends and enemies of Stevens agree on is that the unusual early poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," remains enigmatic.

The title alone is worthy of a classic fairytale, conjuring up images of a great royal figure sitting on a mighty throne, slurping up a huge, delicious-looking ice-cream.

But as so often with Wallace Stevens, there's so much more to explore. Let's go on a journey into this short poem, line by line, and see what we come up with. Here is the poem . . . .

"The Emperor of Ice-Cream"


What Is the Meaning of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream?"

If you're new to this poem you might be slightly baffled on the first read-through. It contains cigars, boys and girls, a muscular man, flowers, ice-cream, a dead woman. All are enigmatically wrapped up in a loose iambically driven couple of stanzas. The imagery is strong and unusual—an emperor of ice-cream?

But the poet poses a further challenge—you finish reading, and there's a strong feeling of . . . what? For me, it was a feeling of completeness and puzzlement. As I worked my way through I thought—this poem is all about celebrating an event with a party of sorts. Freshly rolled cigars, ice-cream, flowers!

Yet the language is a bit odd. Concupiscent, wenches, emperor? What's that all about?

The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully . . . (Wallace Stevens)

This quote shows just where the poet was coming from. He wanted to challenge the reader as well as entertain them with unusual wordplay and exotic language. The Emperor of Ice-Cream certainly does both!

I have read this poem many times. Each read-through, I get slightly different images appearing in my mind's eye, the sign of a great poem, I think.

Although I was sad that someone had passed away in the second stanza, by the time I finished reading, I also felt happy. Despite not fully grasping the relationship between the 7th and 14th lines, the image of the great emperor with his ice-cream, enjoying the moment for what it is, affected me inside.

The fundamental message is—eat the ice-cream before time melts it away.

This poem is about the affirmation of precious life, made real by the language of imagination.

Line by Line Analysis of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

Lines 1–3

There's an invisible director in this poem whose voice is heard from the very first word—Call. It's a request for someone muscular to whip up some curds. Not any old curds—they have to be concupiscent, that is, sexually charged curds.

Well, that's a little bit different. With this one word, the poet is telling us that this is no ordinary scene. The strong male presence, rolling cigars, is told to now stop and concentrate on the kitchen cups?

It's a strange form of narrative, at a distance yet definitely in the house where the wake takes place. Note the enjambment at lines 2-3, 'bid him whip/In kitchen cups'....and the slick assonance( vowel sounds) before the alliterative 'concupiscent curds' and 'kitchen cups'.

The meter is mixed, never settled, which adds to the mystery.

Lines 4–6

'Let the wenches dawdle'. A wench by the way is a near archaic word meaning girl, servant, or yes, prostitute. Shakespeare used it in some of his plays but back in his day it had less baggage with it and meant merely girl or lass or even daughter.

In this poem, girl seems more appropriate because in the next line the boys are introduced. Dawdle suggests slowness, a casual idleness. The speaker is allowing both sexes freedom: to wear their everyday clothes and to carry flowers in recycled newsprint.

Stevens steadily builds up this first scene, moving us away from the kitchen and into another room perhaps where young people are gathered. The contrast between the past and the present is highlighted by the fresh flowers and old news - beautiful blooms, meaningless print.

Again there's a sense of poverty and informality. There is no fancy vase for the flowers, no formal best dress for the girls.

Enjambment is in evidence but the syntax is less playful.

Lines 7–8

The poem changes tack in the last two lines of stanza one. We enter philosophical territory for the first time, and a full rhyme, seem/ice-cream, plus repeated words—be be—emperor...emperor—make this quite a definite statement of intent.

What are we to make of 'Let be be finale of seem'? It's a line that's caused all sorts of misunderstandings in the past and perhaps still can't be nailed down absolutely, which is just what Wallace Stevens would have wanted.

A finale is the last part of some dramatic event so I think the speaker is suggesting that being—life as lived by a human—is all there is, it's the reality behind the impression. Or is reality sometimes not what it seems? Only the imagination in the guise of an emperor eating ice-cream can tempt reality into worthwhile being.

Eat the ice-cream while you can because soon it'll be melted away to nothing!

Lines 9–12

This second stanza opens with another instruction from the speaker. Following on from the verbs to call, to bid and to let in the first stanza, the verb to take brings more specific movement into the poem. You can see the people in the room, the dresser door opening and this sheet, embroidered by the woman herself, being placed quietly over her face.

We soon learn that we're in a very personal space because what comes out of the dresser of deal is a sheet with which to cover a dead woman's face. Deal is cheaper pine wood. The fact that there are knobs missing only adds to the idea of poverty - this is a poor woman's wake, make no mistake.

These four lines are quite moving in their simplicity, gradually building into the iambic.

Lines 13–14

You're brought back to earth and physical reality in the next two lines. The deceased woman's 'horny feet' are sticking out because the sheet is too small but don't worry, they'll be a strong reminder of her death and reinforce the fact that, as a dead person, she knows nothing.

This comes over as rather harsh. The speaker is telling us and everyone in the room that death is cold, even ugly, and final.

Note the rhyme of come/dumb.

Lines 15–16

As in stanza one, the last two lines hold a philosophical key. Wallace Stevens very much thought of the imagination as light; the imagination for him was life. The lamp and its beam is the imagined life, shining into the darker corners of existence.

By setting his poem in the house of a dead woman he finds the perfect element in which to express his poetic ideas about life, and the purpose of being.

Ice-cream is ephemeral yes, it melts away, it is consumed but it represents something that's delicious and attractive. It's temporary, like life, can be held, shared, and enjoyed to the full.

Summary of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

Wallace Stevens wrote in one of his notebooks that 'A poem should stimulate the sense of living and of being alive.'

By choosing the subject of death and loss in The Emperor of Ice-Cream he tackles the idea of simply being with imagination, light and you might say, playful use of common and rare language.

Creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, with almost bizarre imagery, means he avoids sentimentality yet retains something profoundly moving and positive.

Above all, this is a versatile poem, at home in a formal reading or private gathering. You can read it out loud with confidence, or to yourself with a hint of philosophical mystery. The words are as delicious as ice cream.


100 essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

The Library of America, Collected Poems, 1997

© 2013 Andrew Spacey