The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens

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Summary of ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

”The Emperor of Ice-Cream” consists of two eight-line stanzas. There is no set meter to the poem and no regular rhyme scheme. The last couplet of the first stanza and the last two couplets of the second are rhymed; the rest of the poem is not. The simplest way to summarize the poem is to look at one stanza at a time, as the two stanzas deal with very different information.

Wallace Stevens published The Emperor of Ice-Cream in Harmonium, his first poetry collection.

A black and white photograph of Wallace Stevens, author of The Emperor of Ice-Cream

The first stanza describes the preparations for an event, though it is not clear until later what that event actually is. A man who rolls cigars is in charge of making ice cream in the kitchen. The women invited to the event are told to wear their regular clothes. The boys bring flowers wrapped in last month’s newspapers; nothing too fancy. The last two lines of the stanza are more obscure: ”Let be be finale of seem” sounds like a request for things to be as they are, not as they appear to be. ”The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” requires more analysis, described in detail below.

In the second stanza, it becomes clear that the event in question is a funeral or wake. The speaker of the poem is preparing the body of an old woman for her funeral, covering her face with an embroidered sheet. He goes on to say that if the sheet does not cover her feet, that is okay: people will simply better understand the finality of her death. The last line of the poem repeats: ”The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” If this line seemed almost playful in the first stanza, particularly when connected to the image of the burly man making ice cream in the kitchen, it takes on a more unsettling tone in the second.

”The Emperor of Ice-Cream” Analysis

Conducting a full ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream” analysis means getting to the bottom of this unusual and somewhat cryptic poem. At its core, ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is a poem about death. It explores the finality of dying and the way that death strips back artifice and makes reality seem horribly, inescapably real. The poem also examines the rituals that people have around funerals and what those rituals say about life, death, and society.

”The Emperor of Ice-Cream” Meaning

Understanding the real ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream” meaning requires readers to get comfortable with the idea of ambiguity. In poetry, ambiguity refers to an intentional lack of resolution. Stevens’ poem does not have a singular clear meaning, but rather layers of meaning that come into and out of focus as one reads the work.

In the first stanza, the speaker seems to suggest that the preparations for the funeral should not be elaborate; the ”wenches” should ”dawdle in such dress / As they are used to wear” and the boys should wrap the flowers in old newspapers. Why ought the funeral to be so simple? The speaker does not say, but perhaps it is because further artifice would only mask the stark reality of death. ”Let be be finale of seem” suggests that the time for dissimulation is over: the old woman is dead, and the funeral is a perfunctory matter. The second stanza seems to reinforce this message with the lines about the old woman’s feet. If the sheet does not cover them, then nobody should do anything else to make her death more palatable. They should serve as a reminder that she really is dead.

There is an important allusion, or reference, in ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream” that helps clarify the poem’s meaning. The line ”the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” is clearly significant; it is in the poem twice as well as the title. The line sounds like a reference to the following quote from Hamlet by William Shakespeare:

Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that’s the end (Act IV, Scene II).

The title of the poem references a line from Hamlet about the finality of death.

An image of a painting of Hamlet finding the skull of the gravedigger

Hamlet says this line to his uncle Claudius. He is both alluding to the fact that he recently killed Polonius and also threatening his uncle, whom he is planning to murder. In the context of both Hamlet and ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” this line suggests that death is the only truly important force in the world. All of the social hierarchies that humans create are nothing compared to the worms that will eat their corpses. Of course, Stevens abstracts this thought further by talking about an emperor of ice cream rather than death; the poem evades simple explanations yet again.

Themes of ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

Wallace Stevens explores several themes in ”The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” all of which connect back to the poem’s main meanings of death and finality. The interplay between life and death is a fundamental part of the poem that is reflected clearly in the division between the two stanzas. The first stanza is set in the kitchen, where the man makes ice cream. The kitchen represents life, as it is the place where food is produced. The second stanza, on the other hand, represents death; it is set in the old woman’s bedroom. Her dresser is missing three of its knobs, and the sheet that covers her face is one that she embroidered a long time ago.

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