Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ is famous (and infamous) for the challenge it offers to students. This lesson will bring it down to earth a little, and provide a framework for understanding and appreciating the poet’s work.
Coming to Grips with Ambiguity
Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream‘ is famous for its poetic qualities, but also for its capacity to create interpretive headaches — poetic brainfreeze if we run with the ice cream concept. The poem is saturated with ambiguity, which refers to an intentional lack of resolution and clarity.
So if we want to draw some meaning out of the poem, we need to get comfortable with this opacity, and use what the poem gives us. Imagery and language connotations can help make meaning out of this ambiguity.First, let’s read the poem together:The Emperor of Ice CreamCall the roller of big cigars,The muscular one, and bid him whipIn kitchen cups concupiscent curds.Let the wenches dawdle in such dressAs they are used to wear, and let the boysBring 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 sheetOn which she embroidered fantails onceAnd spread it so as to cover her face.If her horny feet protrude, they comeTo show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
The poem consists of two, balanced, eight-line sections or stanzas. The scenario is assumed to be a wake for a dead woman.
It is generally agreed that stanza one takes place in the kitchen, and stanza two in the bedroom of the same house.In the first stanza, a muscular cigar roller will be called on to whip up the ice cream. The wake will be informal.
The young women can wear their regular daily outfits. The flowers, delivered by local boys, can be wrapped in month-old newspapers. But then the seeming practical details give way to a pair of enigmatic lines:Let be be finale of seem.The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.In the second stanza, we move on to the bedroom. The body also has to be prepared.
The embroidered sheet from the dresser will be used to cover her face. If her knobby, old feet stick out, it will remind us that she is truly dead. And again, we have the concluding lines that take us out of this concrete situation and into ambiguity:Let the lamp affix its beam.The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Imagery ; Connotation
Imagine a camera focused on a burly man’s arms and hands at work, whipping ice cream.
He’s a cigar roller, so his hands are strong and flexible. Zoom in: the nails have a brown tint and dark residue under the fingernails from his work. The camera then shifts to the young women, focusing on their dresses and shoes, their skirts swirling and their feet shifting as they meet and greet in no particular hurry. Then the boys appear, legs churning, and the camera quickly zeroes in on what they carry: vibrantly colorful, fresh cut flowers, contrasting brilliantly with the black and white of their wrappers. Odd imagery.The language is odd as well, taking on what Stevens once described as ‘the essential gaudiness of poetry’, and connotations become crucial.
Language connotations are the associated or secondary meanings that go beyond literal definitions. The ice cream is ‘concupiscent curds’, which by definition makes a frozen, lustful dessert. Female attendees are called ‘wenches’, which can refer either to young women in general, or to servants and prostitutes. They ‘dawdle.
‘ Like ‘concupiscent’, it is a word that you roll around in your mouth to pronounce, like a luscious treat. The flowers ride in on the energy of boys, wrapped in ‘last month’s newspapers’, and their fragrance and beauty overshadows the old news of the world. These images become more than mere pictures through language. It draws special attention to their vitality, their physicality, and their command of the moment, and they lead to the cryptic final lines of the stanza, which is a rhymed couplet.
Stanza two’s images are quite different. A sheet, which we associate with burial shrouds and even ghosts, is grabbed from the dresser made of ‘deal’, or cheap pine. The camera dwells on the wood grain, the three missing knobs, the careful, time-consuming labor of the sheet’s embroidery. Then we zoom in on the ‘horny feet’. They stick out, almost comically from under the sheet. The room is a place of the dead, of stillness, of wear and age, of protruding feet that are lined with callouses, from a life of hard use. The language is much more sparse and mundane, with adjectives like ‘cold’ and ‘dumb’, which emphasizes the lifelessness and the silence of the setting.
The body is now more like a furnishing in the room, than a being. And again, it concludes with a couplet steeped in ambiguity.
‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ creates two scenes, and comments on them. The first scene is about living and being, even while death looms in the next room. There is no larger truth or spiritual message in evidence. ‘Being’ is muscular, sensual, vibrant, and oblivious to time.
The ambiguous line ‘Let be be finale of seem’ defies comprehension, like the nature of being in the first place, yet ‘let be’ also implies ‘let it be’, or ‘leave it alone’. ‘Finale’ usually refers to a concluding segment in a performance. The word ‘seem’ refers specifically to the appearance of being, rather than the actuality. The phrase ‘of seem’ also suggests the word ‘seemly’, which means appropriate or fitting. So one-way of interpreting the line might be: ‘Let being, being what it is, become the end of appearances, and the most perfect conclusion.’ In a way, by being alive, the people in and around the kitchen are the most seemly tribute to the life of the woman in the bedroom.As for the bedroom, it contains a corpse, a shape covered with a sheet, like a piece of furniture or a ghost with nothing to haunt.
Two feet protrude, a slightly ridiculous image. The poem doesn’t mock the dead, but it might just mock the importance we attribute to death; according to the poem, they are dumb and cold.This leaves us with the poem’s own finale. Who is this Emperor of Ice Cream? Stevens once said in a letter that the poem is ‘obviously not about ice cream’, so what can we make of this cartoonish icon that obviously can’t be taken at face value? Stevens associates ice cream with visceral, living, pulsating existence. Ice cream must be enjoyed in the here and now, before it melts away into a tepid puddle and eventually a crusty residue.
The Emperor of Ice Cream has no territory to conquer, or regime to administer, only reign over the here and now. Given the proximity of death in the poem, and traditional notions of a King of Eternity, who will claim the departed soul, Stevens gives us an alternative, the only alternative. There is life, and there is not life. Eat your ice cream before it melts.
Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream poem is known for its poetic style as well as for its ambiguity, or intentional lack of resolution and clarity.
It suggests far more than it tells us, requiring analysis that uses imagery and language connotations, or associated or secondary meanings, to create a framework for determining meaning. Careful reading reveals a meditation on the nature of being itself, celebrating life on its own terms through a bizarre icon, the Emperor of Ice Cream. A scene of vibrant life is set in the kitchen of the same home where a woman lies dead in her bedroom. Ice cream represents the poem’s call for us to experience and appreciate life before it slips, or melts, away–at which point the end is simply the end, silent and cold, according to the perspective of the poem.