Poem Guide

Wallace Stevens: “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

The chilly heart of a whimsical poem
Wallace Stevens

To tease out the meaning of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” one of the most famously elliptical poems of the 20th century, maybe we should start by looking into the meaning of ice cream itself.

It turns out that its implications have changed a bit over time. Consider a text from roughly the same era, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), in which a Sunday-school picnic drives the young heroine wild with anticipation:

It wouldn't matter if I got to a hundred picnics in after years; they wouldn't make up for missing this one. They're going to have boats on the Lake of Shining Waters—and ice cream, as I told you. I have never tasted ice cream. Diana tried to explain what it was like, but I guess ice cream is one of those things that are beyond imagination.

Anne’s joy transports us back to a time before Häagen-Dazs and Baskin-Robbins, a world in which household refrigeration was rudimentary and ice cream had yet to be mass-produced on a modern scale. It wasn’t “beyond imagination” for everyone—it was sold in drugstores, for example—but it was still an indulgence, not a fixture of the average kitchen.

Composed fewer than 15 years later, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” depicts a rather busy kitchen, one in which ice cream is to be “whip[ped]” up with gusto:

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.

This brief vignette is dense with imagery and short on context. “Concupiscent” seems to promise a clue: it’s an eye-catching word, a gaudy word. (Stevens once remarked that “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” captured “something of the essential gaudiness of poetry.”) It’s also an unusual word to apply to food: it means “lustful, desirous.” Stevens may have meant it to echo a sensual passage in Keats’sThe Eve of St. Agnes,” in which Porphyro piles sweets—including “jellies soother than the creamy curd”—before his beloved.

We notice that the theme of lust also extends to the “muscular” roller of “big cigars” (Stevens, like all the modernists, wrote in the shadow of Freud) and those “wenches” (which can mean female servants, as it does here, or prostitutes in other contexts) who “dawdle” around the ice cream maker and his curds. Even the boys who bring flowers evoke romance, and those dated newspapers, useful now only as wrappers, remind us of the swift passage of time—a traditional theme in poems about young love.

But how did this kitchen get so hot and heavy? Where is it located? Who are all these people? Who is conjuring up the scene? The rest of the stanza supplies none of this information; instead, it vaults into sudden abstraction:

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The next stanza shifts abruptly to a description of a dresser and sheet, which leads up to the image of a female corpse:

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.

If you’re confused by now, you’re not alone: celebrated critic Helen Vendler noted that the poem, despite its fame, “resisted explication for some decades.” She went on to summarize what is now generally accepted as its intended narrative:

The basic “story” of “The Emperor” is that of a person who goes to the house of a neighbor, a poor old woman, who has died; the person is to help “lay out” (arrange for decent viewing) the corpse in the bedroom, while other neighbors are sending over homegrown flowers, and yet others are preparing food, including ice cream, for the wake.

Stevens “plots” this story into two equal stanzas: one for the kitchen where the ice cream is being made, one for the bedroom where the corpse awaits decent covering. He “plots” it further by structuring the poem as a series of commands from an unknown master of ceremonies, directing—in a diction of extreme oddness—the neighbors in their funeral duties. …

If that seems like a Sherlock Holmesian feat of deduction, it is. This poem is exceptionally compact: the only clues regarding the woman’s age, for example, are her “horny” (calloused) feet and grandmotherly penchant for embroidery. The only clue to her identity, or financial or social status, is the disrepair of the “deal” (cheap pine) dresser, with its missing knobs. Once we connect the first scene with the second, we realize that we’re probably at a wake, and the flowers in the first stanza are funereal, not romantic. But we’re unlikely to understand the emphasis on ice cream without a further piece of information: festive wakes, complete with rich desserts, are traditional in some Caribbean cultures, including those Stevens encountered in his travels to Key West and Havana. And either setting would help explain the presence of a local cigar maker.

The picture that emerges from these few, quick brushstrokes brings the poem’s abstract statements into clearer focus. In the kitchen, we have flirtation, bustling activity, and tasty treats. Elsewhere in the house, we have a dead woman and a decaying dresser. What does it mean, in this context, to declare near the end of the first stanza “Let be be finale of seem”?

It’s one of those lines that “resist[s] the intelligence”—as Stevens said poetry must do—“almost successfully.” A literal paraphrase might read “Let artifice and illusion give way to plain reality.” According to critic Milton J. Bates, “the speaker of the poem insists that the naturalistic ‘be’ replace the religious or romantic ‘seem,’” thereby rejecting the myths surrounding death and the afterlife. In other words, let realism take over idealism. To Judith Christine Brown, “the line suggests that only in death does seeming end. … In life, however, there is only seeming” because people filter the world through the distortions of imagination and language. This reading jibes with the parallel command in the second stanza—“Let the lamp affix its beam”—which evokes an atmosphere of autopsy or interrogation, the harsh light of reality illuminating only what can be seen, not imagined. The embroidered sheet with birds (“fantails”) on it, leaving the corpse partly exposed under the lamp’s glare, seems a symbol of the inadequacy of artifice.

But why the emperor of ice cream? It’s an odd combination: an absolute, imperial power and a benign, sweet treat. But look closer—scoop deeper—and its meanings multiply. Ice cream is a sensuous delight, eagerly anticipated and gleefully consumed. If you wait too long to eat it, it’ll melt. It’s an ephemeral pleasure, like sex, flowers, the daily newspaper, life itself. And it’s cold, though “cold” appears in this poem only as a description of the woman’s body. By linking the chill of death with a frozen dessert, Stevens seems to imply that death and the sensuous pleasures of life have something in common: detachment or isolation, perhaps. The dead woman is insensible to—“cold” toward—the lively goings-on in the kitchen, and those dawdling girls don’t seem very concerned with her either.

So much for the ice cream—now what about the emperor? Again, the word suggests an all-powerful ruler; but it carries other intriguing associations. The emperor may be part philosophical abstraction, part fairy-tale character, perhaps even an allusion to the story of the emperor with no clothes—an embodiment of the contrast between illusory “seeming” and naked “being.” Alternatively, or additionally, he might be the unidentified speaker of the poem, issuing haughty commands and referring to himself in the third person.

In her book A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens, scholar Eleanor Cook points out several possible connections between “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet not only makes many famous existential remarks about life, seeming, and being (including “To be or not to be …” and “Let be,” spoken just before his fatal swordfight) but also uses the metaphor of an emperor to make a point about death. In Act 4, when other characters are looking for a dead body, Hamlet says to Claudius,

Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.

Stevens’s use of the identical phrase “only emperor” could be a coincidence, but his subject matter here (greedy consumption, corpses meeting an unceremonious fate), together with his Shakespearean borrowings in other poems, raises the distinct possibility of a connection. Certainly Hamlet’s point—that human beings aren’t at the top of the food chain; the worms in our graves are—resonates with the themes of the poem. The lives of all creatures are fragile and temporary, and all creatures obey a sovereign impulse toward hedonism: feast as much as you can while there’s still time. Vendler paraphrases:

The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau—the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom.

Seen in this light, serving ice cream at a wake has symbolic overtones to begin with. Most customs surrounding death do. Stevens’s poem recognizes that symbolism and elaborates on it. Ice cream is like life: sweet, or at least hungrily indulged in, while it lasts. It’s also like the dead: cold and destined to be consumed or to dissipate away. Perhaps, then, the line that closes each stanza is a wake-up call to readers. If the “only emperor” or dominant principle of the world is the one we’re reminded of when we see ice cream melting—or, in a different way, when we attend a funeral—we’d be well advised to heed it and make each moment count.

                                                                  *    *    *

Wallace Stevens had a notorious sweet tooth. In the oral biography Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, friends and colleagues repeatedly attest to his appetite and love of delicious foods. Yet Stevens also had a strong, competing ascetic streak. He was, for most of his life, a quiet, reserved insurance lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut, who lived semi-reclusively and often behaved distantly toward his family. He once declared during a celebratory dinner that “you’ve got to be a monk” to succeed as a poet, an austerity that impressed and perhaps surprised one of his table companions, the young Richard Wilbur.

As in his life, so in his writing. Stevens’s poems are full of lush language, balmy climates, and tropical fruits but also wintry landscapes and austere philosophizing. They are both sensuous and abstract, indulgent and hermetic. Their playfulness belies a stoic, even pessimistic, outlook. (His poem “Table Talk” begins simply: “Granted, we die for good.”)

Squarely in the midst of these contradictions falls “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” With its two stanzas and two rooms, the poem is neatly divided between a depiction of bustling life and a contemplation of lonely death. It turns a vibrant locale into a reminder of our ultimate destination, a once exotic-seeming dessert into a symbol of what fate serves up to all of us in the end. It starts as a whimsical confection, but it leaves a remarkably chilly aftertaste.
 

Originally Published: August 5th, 2014

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

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  1. August 6, 2014
     TP

    Thanks to Mr. Austin for explicating this poem with sense and
    scholarship. It may be that in my maturity, I am finally ready to
    understand it. As a student I recall being annoyed by Stevens'
    obscurity, but even more by the tentative classroom explications of
    the poem. Back then I knew that these readings were speculative.
    Now I realize that much of what I heard in school about the poem was
    just windy, evasive and ill-informed.

  2. August 7, 2014
     Michael Cassady

    I find much of what Mr. Allen says about The Emperor of Ice Cream a
    good example of how poems that work on us want to be manhandled,
    invested, taken over. I do think it right to think Stevens is inviting us
    to commune with him as a rule. Not in a chummy way, of course.
    He's clearly not engaged in social display, or crying out for love and
    appreciation. Perhaps his art is in part a working out of a struggle of
    a very New England person with modernity he suffers but does not
    reject. If born to think of yourself as a "Somebody", a moral force
    born to author and parliament the making of reality as a
    representation, Modernity deprives us of assurances of a rightful
    place, while also breaking down the containing walls of self-
    repression, of statuesque decorum. Anyone who feels in the Modern a
    central conflict an urge to excellence and a democratic barrage of
    imagination bottled and packaged into 'mediating' images, can share
    with Stevens a desire to give imagination a salutary subversive liberty.

    As an adventure in symbolic exercise, Emperor is perhaps more and
    organism than a machine. I'm particularly interested myself in the
    atmosphere. It's almost as if the Necessary Angel is flying about in
    these various ordinary rooms, each with its own blood supply of
    connotations, baffling the impatient powers of association from
    wrapping everything up. It's delightfully disturbing how the observer
    of this scene is fascinated by detail— deal chest, muscular, fantail —
    but without emotional involvement, and abstract. We're excluded
    from the life forces animating the kitchen scene as well as the dead
    woman's story. Straining to keep all this together may be all I need to
    take away from this encounter with Sevens at this address. Yes, I see
    plenty of what might not be there to see. Reality and Imagination find
    work both in the kitchen and the bedroom— which may, or may not
    need connecting other than by juxtaposition. Exposed, life-worn feet,
    missing knobs, fantail decoration clawing pitifully at crushing banality,
    why big cigars?

    Anyway, I hope this fails to sum up Emperor adequately!

    Mike Cassady

  3. August 7, 2014
     Louise Osborn

    Thank you! That was superb!

  4. August 7, 2014
     Rosemarie Rowley

    I enjoyed the essay by Austin Allen, however I differ
    from him in that some of the meanings are less elusive
    if one takes in the actual word - I think Wallace
    Stevens is using the word "Emperor" almost in a
    political way. Empires have vanished, so the only
    emperor is the emperor of ice-cream, that is, it appeals
    to the public because it is sweet, and cheap, a luxury
    that literally melts away, therefore such treats are not
    long-lasting. The wenches dawdling in dresses in the
    frenetic activity of whipping up concupiscent curds are
    a play on the idea of work which is becoming obsolete,
    tied to a hint of erotic activity, such as maids were
    depicted in earlier times. The sudden shift to a death
    scene carries the activity to its last point - death -
    while the horny feet are a parody in the bedroom of the
    activity in the kitchen. There is no doubt that without
    Emperors we have lost the high points of civilization,
    and the new freedoms often involve a debasement in taste
    and a futility that even being a democratic republic we
    still end up as a corpse - the horny feet protruding -
    in the bedroom. It is a political fable, exquisitely
    done.

  5. August 9, 2014
     Dave Thornburg

    Thank you, Mr. Allen! Well done--as cool and precise as
    Stevens' own work.

  6. August 10, 2014
     Tim McGrath

    A bright, clean essay, sharp and clear, with none of the
    turbid and turgid prose that kills so many pieces.

  7. August 10, 2014
     Russ

    My interpretation of the title phrase is that "the Emperor of Ice-Cream" is Death itself. That is, death personified (similar to the phrase "the Grim Reaper.") You explained the idea that ice cream essentially equals life in this poem. So who is the ruler (the emperor) over life? Death. As always with great literature and art, there are many possible interpretations, but this is the one I've always preferred.

  8. August 10, 2014
     David Owens

    I want to thank Mr. Allen for this thoughtful and
    illuminating essay.

    I'm only an occasional reader of poetry and certainly no
    literary scholar. I hope you'll forgive me for presuming
    to make a comment or two.

    Previously, "The Emperor of Ice Cream" had always
    defeated me as a reader. I picked up on the fact that
    the poem was about a wake and the ephemeral and
    transitory, perhaps even the insignificant, nature of
    life. But that phrase, "the emperor of ice cream" struck
    what seemed to be a discordant note, a whimsicality or
    flippancy which trivialized the theme and subject and
    made the author (or narrator, if you prefer) seem
    loutish and disrespectful. To my mind, it gave the poem
    an undercurrent of sneering condescension or
    dismissiveness. For that reason, I disliked it.

    But having read your essay, it now seems to me that the
    whimsicality of the phrase creates an ironic contrast
    with the poem's imagery and general tone. The phrase is
    disturbing, not because of churlishness and bad manners,
    but because the author/narrator is using flippancy to
    numb or dull the uneasiness and muted fear that comes of
    contemplating such a death, just as we sometimes use
    black humor to distance ourselves emotionally from
    horrifying events. The scene and the theme create a
    vague sense of dread the author/narrator can only view
    them through a lens of real or feigned indifference. The
    phrase "the emperor of ice cream" becomes a mask of
    indifference behind which the author/narrator conceals
    his dread not only from others but from himself. The
    reader asks "Why is that fellow wearing that mask?"
    which indirectly leads the reader to the buried sense of
    dread in himself that he might be unable or unwilling to
    express and confront.

    It is a master stroke of subtlety.

    Okay, forgive me for bloviating. Anyway, I just wanted
    to thank you for helping me to finally appreciate a
    wonderful poem. Good job, sir.

  9. August 11, 2014
     Christian Koefoed-Nielsen

    A superb exegesis of a poem I have struggled with as much as loved!
    Particularly helpful links to Caribbean wakes and the Hamlet
    line....great stuff - many thanks!

  10. August 12, 2014
     Suzanne Douglas

    What a wonderful analysis - thank you. One of my college professors
    once posited that the words "ice cream" could also evoke, albeit
    indirectly, "I scream" - especially when read aloud. I'd be curious to hear
    what author and/or readers think about this.

  11. August 12, 2014
     Lucy Lewis

    I have been puzzling over Robin Williams' death and deemed suicide.
    What struck a chord was Wordsworth's line "The world is too much
    with us, late and soon." Then I read your analysis of Wallace Stevens'
    The Emperor of Ice Cream, and it helped me understand the major
    contradiction of Robin Williams' work, as he made us laugh deliciously
    and cry inconsolably, sometimes even in the same monologue (bench
    monologue from Good Will Hunting). Of course, I should be quoting
    from Dead Poets' Society since indeed this is a poetry website- " we
    don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write
    poetry because we are members of the human race." Ice cream is
    delectably exigent, must be eaten before it melts, just like...

  12. August 13, 2014
     Davis Oldham

    Thanks for this reading. I’ve loved this poem for as long as I’ve known of it, and have puzzled over it as well.
    One point I want to take issue with slightly, and expand on, is the reading of the line “Let be be finale of seem.” I think that the interpretation offered here pays too little attention to the word “finale.” Austin Allen paraphrases the line as “Let artifice and illusion give way to plain reality,” and quotes a couple of critics to the same effect. My difficulty with this reading is the idea of a “finale” as a “replacement,” and the relationship between “seeming” and “being” as a simple dichotomy: it’s either one or the other.
    That’s not what I take “finale” to signify, and it’s not consistent with my understanding of Stevens’ other poems. A finale is a conclusion, the last piece of music in a composition or, to quote the OED, “The last scene or closing part of a drama or any other public entertainment.” These do not simply replace what has preceded them, as superior or preferable; rather, they are intimately connected to the foregoing and in some sense implied by it.
    If I’m right that “finale” connotes some necessary relation between “seem” and “be,” the question becomes, what relation? How does seeming imply or lead to being; how does being sum up and conclude seeming?
    I’ve always been inclined to read this line as suggesting that the two halves of this seeming dichotomy are, in the end, one. On this view, being does not transcend seeming but rather fully inhabits and fulfills it. This may seem to contradict those critics who find in Stevens a rejection of “the myths surrounding death and the afterlife,” to quote Austin Allen. But I’d argue that it’s actually quite consistent with them. How things seem is how they are; there is no further truth above, behind, or below them. The scene in the kitchen and the scene in the bedroom are what they are, no more, no less. To quote another of my favorite Stevens poems, “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man,” “The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods.” The sun’s appearance is what it is, and our myth-making about it cannot touch its essential reality, which is the ultimate conclusion—the finale—of its appearance.
    But this is largely a negative gloss: “no further truth,” etc. The glory of this line, in context, is that it is celebratory as much as it is a denial. Finale, after all, connotes something showy, splendid, dramatic. There are a lot of other words for ending or conclusion, not to mention contradiction or denial, that Stevens could have chosen here, with very different connotations, but he chose “finale.” Why? It seems to imply that if we really see things for what they are, without the distorting illusions of myth, they are worthy of celebration; indeed, they are a celebration, even in the presence of death.
    In the penultimate stanza of “Sunday Morning,” a group of men worship the sun, “not as a god, but as a god might be.” This paradox, I think, sums up Stevens’ attitude: gods and such like are inadequate to the reality we experience; only what we imagine, hope for, or aspire to with the idea of a god can do it justice. Yet in the end it’s the reality, not our conception of it, that deserves our attention and our praise. The men “shall chant in orgy on a summer morn,” celebrating not the abstract god but the reality of the things “wherein their lord delights”—“windy lake,” trees, “echoing hills.” They will, the poem promises, “know well the heavenly fellowship / Of men that perish and of summer morn.” Death is present, but it does not constitute the whole of the experience of seeming and being; “summer morn” is the other half of the experience. This line reproduces in miniature the double form of the two stanzas in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” The final stanza of “Sunday Morning” is even more explicit in its rejection of the myth (“The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”) Yet it concludes with an almost ecstatic evocation of sensory existence in all its diversity:
    Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
    Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
    Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
    And, in the isolation of the sky,
    At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
    Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
    Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
    Death is present, but not a uniform or monolithic presence, or one that obliterates the rest of reality. The scene is “ambiguous,” equally available to both responses—the celebration in the kitchen or the mourning in the bedroom.
    In this context I would also suggest a somewhat different take on “Let the lamp affix its beam.” Austin Allen argues that it “evokes an atmosphere of autopsy or interrogation, the harsh light of reality illuminating only what can be seen, not imagined.” Here again I think it’s too one-sided. Yes, we must look death in the face, but we also should look at everything else before us—the inadequate sheet (I like Allen’s reading of this as “a symbol of the inadequacy of artifice”), the flowers, the newspapers, the boys and girls and ice cream.
    Allen reminds us that Stevens’ succulent sounds enact this celebration too. I would argue that his attention to form is the result of a commitment to the idea expressed in the line, “Let be be finale of seem.”