The Emperor Of Ice Cream By Wallace Stevens

(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.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

37 thoughts on “The Emperor Of Ice Cream By Wallace Stevens

  1. Well, if I had to pick a favorite Wallace Stevens poem, this would be The Poems of Our Climate.

    Re-Statement of Romance comes in a close second.

    I almost had it read at our wedding but thought people might find it a tad bleak.

    Stevens is one of my favorite poets, even if I’m never really sure what his a lot poems mean. But they’re just so wonderful to read aloud. That said, I’ve never really liked The Emperor of Ice Cream and, were this poem all I knew of Stevens, I doubt I’d be a fan. I do like your interpretation of it though, Jay. I might have to reconsider.


    • “Bleak”

      That’s one of those things that I see other people describe him as that I don’t really see. Okay, maybe Lunar Paraphrase. But, for the most part, I see him as almost naively describing the things that he sees before him and, if he’s to be faulted, he’s to be faulted for being childishly honest.


      • I don’t see it either. Irreverent, maybe, at times profound, at times profoundly un-profound, at times abtruse, but rarely bleak even when he’s talking about death. Because as I mentioned, “death is the mother of beauty,” and he uses it as a celebration of life (see Sunday Morning).

        Bleak is more like,

        I cannot live with you
        It would be Life
        And Life is over there
        Behind the Shelf

        That’s some bleakness.


      • I should clarify. I don’t find the poem bleak but felt others might especially at a wedding since, to me, it’s basically saying that no matter how close to someone else we get, we’re still essentially alone. Plus, The Russian didn’t like it. Nor does he have much use for Wallace Stevens. Not enough rhyme for him. Apparently, in Russia, all poems must rhyme.


      • I used to agree 100% with The Russian on that.

        Then I met Morrissey.

        In any case, I understand the whole “essentially alone” thing, but it’s very nice to find someone with whom you can be essentially alone.


  2. As someone who’s been reading this site since nearly its inception, I had no idea what Jaybird looked or sounded like, but that was not even close to what I imagined in my head.


  3. Speaking of the poem itself, I always figured “Let be be finale of seem” was not only where we are told that we’re in the presence of death, but that it’s where we get told what the poem as a whole is supposed to tell us, specifically that death puts an end to the illusions of life (the social? our fantasies about ourselves and others?), lays it bare so to speak, and leaves us with only what is.

    I’m trying hard not to read it in the context of Sunday Morning, but with its focus on the value of this life even in the absence of another above, before, and after it, that’s the message I get: death brings into stark relief the reality of life in its finitude, and essentially demands that you cut the shit out and live for what is, for what’s now, for what’s good. The only emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream.


  4. Or maybe:

    Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
    And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
    Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
    Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
    Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
    Passing through nature to eternity.

    Ay, madam, it is common.

    If it be,
    Why seems it so particular with thee?

    Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
    ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
    Nor customary suits of solemn black,
    Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
    No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
    Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
    Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
    That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
    For they are actions that a man might play:
    But I have that within which passeth show;
    These but the trappings and the suits of woe.


Comments are closed.