Wallace Stevens: “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”
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 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.
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’s “The 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 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.
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.
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.