- Stevens’s poem uses ice cream to suggest ideas of transience, luxury, life, and death. Choose a food and develop a list of associations connected to it. Like Stevens, try to link sense associations (ice cream is cold) to larger abstractions (death is cold). Use your list as the starting place for a poem that creates a symbolic order around your chosen food.
- As Austin Allen notes in his poem guide, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” takes place in two stanzas and two contrasting “rooms.” Take two different rooms within the same building and write a stanza for each. As Stevens does in this poem, try to convey the feeling of each room through images rather than narration.
- Circle all the nouns from this poem and use them to write a new poem. Keep the same order (so your poem’s first nouns would also be “roller” and “cigars”).
- Stevens once wrote, “A new meaning is the equivalent of a new word.” How does “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” suggest new meanings in old words? Circle all the words that read strangely to you. Think about how Stevens uses shifts in register, modes of address, and syntactical placement to create estranging effects and the purpose of such defamiliarizing tactics and techniques.
- The poem is written in the imperative mode: as critic Helen Vendler noted, it seems to be a list of commands from an “unknown master of ceremonies.” Try rewriting Stevens’s poem from a first-person perspective, or choose one of the characters in the poem and write the scenes from theirs. What is lost and gained in shifting points of view? What does Stevens achieve by using an impersonal, even imperial, mode of address like the imperative?
- Spend a few minutes free-writing on the possible meanings of the puzzling aphorism, “Let be be finale of seem.” What kind of dissonance does the line create, for you and for the poem? How does the line resonate with the first stanza and the next line (think about aural effects or associations as well semantic meaning)? Compare it to the next stanza’s penultimate line—what is the effect of the clustered rhymes between seem-cream-beam?
- Have your students talk about their expectations of a poem titled “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” before they even read it. What kind of poem do they think they’ll encounter? What language, images, or meanings do they expect to confront? After students have read the poem, talk about how meanings and expectations generated by the title were confirmed or contradicted by the poem itself. Have this open onto a larger conversation about the function of titles and titling: what relationships exist between titles and poems? What do your students think about when they title their own poems? Stevens is a notoriously good titler. Ask students to find five Stevens titles on this website or by looking through anthologies or Stevens’s Collected Poems (but they shouldn’t read the poems yet). Have them present their titles as small groups and lead the class in a discussion about what drew them to the title, what is suggestive or strange about it, and what kind of poem they think it might caption or cue. As a final creative exercise, the class could vote on their favorite title and use it as a prompt for their own poems. Then, you might project the real Stevens poem and discuss its relationship to its title.
- Before reading Austin Allen’s illuminating poem guide, talk about what might be going on in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Ask students basic questions like: where is the poem set? What is happening? Why? Ask them to think of different strategies to make sense of the dense and confusing language: they might try to visually represent the poem by drawing its characters and incidents, or they might try to gloss its language by defining terms and hunting down allusions. After they’ve come up with their own answers, read Austin Allen’s poem guide (which includes readings by other critics of the poem as well). Are there other ways to read Stevens’s poem? What kinds of insight and/or meaning do different reading strategies yield?
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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 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’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 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.
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Wallace Stevens is one of America's most respected poets. He was a master stylist, employing an extraordinary vocabulary and a rigorous precision in crafting his poems. But he was also a philosopher of aesthetics, vigorously exploring the notion of poetry as the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality. Because of the extreme technical and thematic complexity of his work, Stevens was sometimes considered a willfully difficult poet. But he was also acknowledged as an eminent abstractionist and a provocative thinker, and that reputation has continued since his death. In 1975, for instance, noted literary critic Harold Bloom, whose writings on Stevens include the imposing Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, called him "the best and most representative American poet of our time."
Stevens was born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His family belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church and when Stevens became eligible...
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