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The Emperor Of Ice-Cream

Wallace Stevens

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Added by: Walt Whitman
If I were Wallace Stevens I would seek counseling.
Added by: TJ
Walt, save yourself the trouble of reincarnation and seek it now. You must have missed this poem on your first reading. Try again with a dictionary and (here's a clue) a pass of Macbeth-- all the world is a stage. .. .
Walt's comments
Added by: High School Student
Walt - This really is quite an excellent poem. I wouldn't have understood it either if I weren't a student, but you shouldn't trash a poem just because you don't get it. You should use your comments to ask others what the poem is about.
Added by: Helen Vendler
At the heart of many of Stevens's poems are harsh and unpalatable experiences revealed only gradually through his intense stylization. The famous poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," resisted explication for some decades, perhaps because no one took the trouble to deduce its implicit narrative from its stylized plot. (The Russian formalist distinction between "story" and "plot" is often useful for this and other Stevens poems.) 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: "Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. /. . . / / Take from the dresser ... / ... that sheet /... / And spread it so as to cover her face." Both the symbolic kitchen stanza (life as concupiscence) and the symbolic bedroom stanza (death as final) end with the same third-order refrain echoed by the title: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Faced with life (however slovenly and appetitive) in the kitchen and death (with its protruding horny feet) on the bed, one must, however unwillingly, acquiesce in the reign of life.

We cannot know what personal events prompted this 1922 poem, apparently set in Key West (so the poet Elizabeth Bishop conjectured, who knew Key West, where Cubans worked at the machines in cigar factories, where blacks always had ice cream at funerals), but it derives resonance from Stevens's mother's death ten years earlier. What is certain is that it represents symbolically, with the Procrustean bed of its two rooms, the bitter moment of choosing life over death, at a time when life seems particularly lonely, self-serving, lustful, and sordid. Art is exposed as too scanty in its powers to cover up death; the embroidered sheet (a figure for the embellished page), if it is pulled up to cover the dead woman's face, reveals her "horny feet," which show "how cold she is, and dumb." In choosing to "let the lamp affix its beam," as in a morgue, and in acquiescing to the command, "Let be be finale of seem," Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. Copyright 1993 by Columbia UP.

walt yes i agree
Added by: tom miller
high school student is right. don't just trash something or someone. this is a very good poem. there's a lot of different meaning to it. it depend on how you read it and the way you view the world. once again this is a poem.
the only emperor
Added by: Jeremy
two of my major questions when i first begun reading this poem were what is an "emperor of ice cream" and why is he/she "the only emperor"?

ice cream is a medium by which people experience immediate, sensual pleasure. in this regard, it may be compared to sexual activity ("concupiscent"), "cigars," or anything else which yields sensual pleasure. everyone is subject to animalistic desires of sensual pleasure to some degree, some more than others. if one person were to acquire absolute control over everybody else's capability of experiencing sensual pleasure, he/she would arguably have complete and ultimate control. such a person would truly be an emperor reigning over all others. to bring this argument back to the poem and down to a smaller scale, the person in charge of dishing out ice cream has quite a bit of influence over the eager guests cradling empty bowls and licking their lips. thus, the "emperor of ice cream." consequently, this emperor is also in charge of rolling the cigars and is muscular (usually considered a male trait of sexual attraction).

indeed, "the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."
Added by: Mike Witt
After analyzing Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” I have come to a conclusion that this poem represents Stevens’s views on religion and Christianity. Stevens believe that religion was silly and that anyone who wasted their entire life trying to act a certain way by denying themselves of the pleasures of life was ignorant and dumb. In ORDER to come to this conclusion, you have to read and understand every part of the poem. The true meaning of this is dependent on putting together all pieces of the poem yet Stevens puts it right out in the open when the poem reads “The Only Emperor Is The Emperor Of Ice-Cream” This line repeats several times, but it is so out in the open that it is hard to see.

The first stanza of the poem is about the pleasures of life and how a people should not deny themselves of those pleasures. There are several symbols in the first stanza that represent pleasure. First off, the poem that reads “Call the roller of big cigars, The muscular one, and bid him whip.” Cigars are often thought of as yielding a sense of pleasure, since people do not smoke them for the nutritional value. In the next line, the poem reads “In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” This can be compared to sensual pleasure of sexual activity. The ice cream is a medium by which people experience immediate, sensual pleasure. In this regard, conupiscent curds may be compared to sexual activity or anything else which yields sensual pleasure.

“Let the wenches dawdle in such dress” means to let the girls wear whatever they need to wear in ORDER to attract the boys who chase after them bringing flowers for sex. “Let be be finale of seem” is interpreted as meaning enjoy the pleasures and not worry about being judged for it later because once it is over, it is over because “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

The second stanza deals with a woman that passed away without every really HAVING experienced the pleasures of life. FROM the poem, the reader can gather that she was a religious woman since she embroidered the fantails which represent Christianity.

I think that the lines “Take FROM the dresser of deal, Lacking the glass knobs” represents an empty or unfulfilled deal with Christianity since the embroidered sheet came FROM the dresser of deal, but the dresser lacked the three glass knobs that represented the father, the son and the holy ghost.

The lines “If her horny feet protrude, they come. To SHOW how cold she is, and dumb.” Gives the reader a sense of reality of the woman who is dead yet is dumb because she spent her entire life denying herself of sensual pleasure in ORDER to fulfill her deal with Christianity to go to heaven.

The last part of the poem reads “Let the lamp affix its beam.” This part of the poem means to let the lamp affix its beam because that is the closest light she will get to the eternal light of heaven because “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

"Let be be..."
Added by: Greg Zsidisin
I've long loved this Stevens poem, along with "A Postcard from the Volcano." Yes, the poem really portrays the turmoil of life with the starkness of death ("Let the lamp affix its beam.").

A small point that I've long wondered at, the famous line "Let be be finale of seem." The two "be's" seem perfect for rhythmn there, yet don't make formal sense, as would "Let be the finale of seem." Artistic license has long been my guess, but I wondered if anyone had other ideas about it.
"Let be be finale of seem"
Added by: Leah
I think the line is suggesting that "be" REPLACE "seem"-- that the carnival-like facade of this woman's wake (the "seem") should fall away until you're left with the reality of her death, and of death in general(the "be").
emperor's new ice cream
Added by: Jedi Master
This poem is obviously about sex. Just read the first line,"Call the roller of big cigars", and try and tell me this is about a funeral.

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