By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ may well qualify for the accolade of ‘most baffling poem of the entire twentieth century’. Written by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) and published in his 1923 volume Harmonium, the poem is in the public domain according to Wikipedia, so we reproduce it below, along with a brief analysis of the poem’s meaning and language. Who, or what, is the Emperor of Ice-Cream?
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.
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 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.
What is this curious poem saying? What is ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ about? These questions have perplexed readers and critics for nearly a century now, but there are a number of things we can declare with some certainty.
First, we can summarise the poem as follows. ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ is in two stanzas, both comprising eight lines. The first stanza is spoken by what Helen Vendler, in an important analysis of the poem, calls ‘an unknown master of ceremonies’. This impresario gives out orders, demanding that a well-built man who works in a cigar-rolling factory whip up some ice-cream – for some guests, we surmise. He says let the ‘wenches’ (girls, though a more pejorative term) wear what they would normally wear; whatever event they are getting ready for, they needn’t get dressed up for.
It is then requested that the boys bring flowers wrapped ‘in last month’s newspapers’. Then things get more abstract: ‘Let be be finale of seem.’ Then we have a reference to the poem’s title, and are cryptically informed, ‘The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.’ We’ll return to this enigmatic statement shortly.
To continue the summary: from this talk of people being commanded to make certain preparations – which are, as Helen Vendler also pointed out, for a funeral – we then move, in the second stanza, to the room in which the solitary corpse of the dead woman is lying in state. This master of ceremonies continues to give commands, asking that a sheet (on which the dead woman, when alive, embroidered fantails – small birds native to Asia and Australia) be taken from the dresser (which has three glass knobs missing from it), to cover the dead woman’s face.
If the woman’s feet stick out from the end (they are ‘horny’ because they are covered in unsightly bunions), because the sheet isn’t long enough to cover both her face and feet, we are told this doesn’t matter: far from being indecorous, it actually highlights the woman’s status as a dead person, her body cold, unable to make a sound. The ‘lamp’ should ‘affix its beam’ and shine fully on the woman: no hiding away her dead body and bunions from view. The poem then ends with the same line repeated from the end of the first stanza.
But we remain in the dark about who this ‘emperor of ice-cream’ really is. Who is he?
Once we understand that the poem is about a funeral, things begin to make more sense. The cryptic command, ‘Let be be finale of seem’, follows three commands to do things which go against the usual social expectations for funerals: making ice-cream into ‘concupiscent curds’ (‘concupiscent’ meaning ‘filled with lust or sexual desire’: hardly appropriate for a solemn funeral), the women not getting dressed up in mourning clothes, the boys bringing flowers not neatly and decorously arranged but placed in last month’s newspapers, like a bag of chips. Last month’s newspapers are a modern symbol of the ephemeral: newspapers are relevant only so long as the news remains new, which usually isn’t long.
This idea of recycling an old sheet (of newspaper) for the funeral arrangements might also be said to prefigure the makeshift funeral sheet that is placed over the dead woman’s face in the second stanza: where ‘once’ (a stinging word, that) the woman embroidered fantails on the sheet, now she, hardly able to fly away, is draped unceremoniously in it. But the speaker of the poem is adamant: ‘Let be [i.e. reality] be finale of seem [i.e. illusion]’.
Rather than dress up the funeral in false and insincere trappings and details, show things the way they actually are, after all. Life will go on after this woman’s death, so there’s no point the women dressing up and putting on a show of mourning. The flowers will soon be as irrelevant as last month’s newspapers, so one may as well wrap the former in the latter.
Similarly, in that second stanza, leave the woman’s feet poking out, the sheet not long enough to cover them. We should be prepared to face up to the realities of death and to confront the physicality of a dead body, warts (or bunions) and all. In this interpretation of the poem, so much is clear. But where does this leave us with the emperor of ice-cream?
Given that the poem begins with a call for ice-cream to be made into sexually erotic ‘curds’, it’s possible that Wallace Stevens intends for the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ to be interpreted as a symbol for life itself: the realities of life with its lust and desire and transience. It may even be that this ‘emperor’ is the one who speaks the commands in the poem’s two stanzas. The only emperor, then, the only ruler who has a sovereign claim on us, is the one that stands for ice-cream: life, desire, feeling, as well as joy and celebration (ice cream being associated with summer holidays among other things).
But what complicates this is the coldness of ice-cream, which, given the coldness of the dead woman’s body in the second stanza, raises the spectre of death: is the emperor of ice-cream a symbol of life or death? Death, after all, is the one who holds court at all funerals. Has the Grim Reaper traded in his scythe for a Mr Whippy van? Is that repeated line supposed to be haunting rather than celebratory: the only master who matters is the one who claims all of us – Death himself?
The poem remains an elusive and enigmatic one, and this analysis can only go so far towards raising some of the key questions (or what we view as key questions; others may differ). Who do you think the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ is? And what is Wallace Stevens saying about death?
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.