(The text of the poem can be found here.)
I’ve been torn on how I’d want to deal with this particular poem. Would I want to spend a paragraph talking about Wallace Stevens and give a short biography? Well… no, not really. We all know where Wikipedia is and anything that I’d say would probably be better said there (or more likely, better said in the sources it quotes).
Open with a discussion of what Wallace Stevens said about this poem? Well, that’s a little more interesting, it seems to me. He wrote it in 1922 and, 11 years later, said that it was his favorite. In a letter to William Rose Benét, he said “I think I should select from my poems as my favorite the Emperor of Ice Cream. This wears a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry; that is the reason why I like it.” In James Longenbach’s biography of Stevens, Wallace Stevens is quoted as saying that “this poem is an instance of letting myself go” (in reference to The Emperor of Ice Cream).
And so now we’re just stuck with saying “what’s going on here?” when we read the poem? There are four interpretations here but, if I’m struck by anything, I’m struck by how widely so many of them miss the mark. Helen Vendler posits that Stevens is “shocked and repelled” (he’s anything but!), Kia Penso spends time talking about transcendence when the poem is very much Here And Now, and Kenneth Lincoln takes the opportunity to say “I can out-purple that.”
So… my take. I see the same thing that Milton J. Bates saw: “a voice that suggests the sideshow barker rather than the unctuous minister or funeral director”. It seems to me that this is the voice that Stevens is hearing as he walks, ghost-like, through the rooms at what turns out to be a wake.
He (*WE*, really) walk into the room to see the large cigar roller turning the crank on an ice cream churn. He uses the word “concupiscent” and, honestly, this poem is the only time that I have ever seen this word used… unless it’s being used by someone who is deliberately making a reference to this poem. Going to the dictionary, we see that it’s a Latin word that means “to conceive ardent desire for” or, more colloquially, “lustful or sensual” (do you see “cupid” hiding in there?). The girls have not dressed up and the boys are bringing flowers…
And we get to the line “Let be be finale of seem.” This is the line where we are first told that we are at a wake.
We go to the second verse and see so very many tiny details in so very very few words (and Stevens is brilliant at this). We have a “dresser of deal” and “deal” was a lumber term that meant pine or fir… cheap wood (as well as a brilliant play on words for being a dresser that she just had to come to terms with). On top of that, we see that the dresser lacked three glass knobs… so even if it was almost nice once, it wasn’t nice anymore… but we take from it a sheet upon which she, a long time ago, embroidered peacocks. In three lines we learn a lot about this woman just by looking at her bedroom.
When her face (and her dignity?) is covered with this sheet, her feet stick out and, once again, we have a play on words to describe what we’re seeing. “Horny”. This word, of course, can mean hard and calloused and, surely, it does… except for the fact that, seconds ago, we were dealing with concupiscence. The invocation of something cupid-related a second time would hardly be an accident but her feet are, at the same time, telling us that she is cold and quiet. And how very.
“Let the lamp affix its beam.” This is the line that gives us a partial moral to the poem. Ecce mulier. Here she is. Behold the woman.
But then… we are not left there. We are let off the hook. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.
Go get some.