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In an imperative voice, the poem’s speaker summons a muscular man, known for rolling big cigars. He is asked to whip up ice cream in kitchen cups, which seems delicious and alluring. Girls hang out in their everyday clothes, and boys arrive with flowers wrapped in old newspaper. The line “Let be be finale of seem” seems to be a command by the speaker of the poem to let reality, pure and simple (“be”), replace any suppositions or conjectures we might try to make about the scene (“seem”). The first stanza ends by declaring ice cream the “only emperor.”
The second stanza shifts scene, starting with a command to look through an old, cheap dresser for a sheet embroidered with birds. We are told the embroidery was the handiwork of a woman, who is now dead, whose face the sheet is being spread out to cover. However, the sheet is so short that her old, callused feet stick out the end, and demonstrate even more bluntly how lifeless she is. The speaker commands the lamp to be directed towards the body. In this light, the speaker repeats the first stanza’s assertion of ice cream as the supreme ruler.
The defining energy of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is its sharp contrast between images of life and death. Two stanzas form this duality: the first presents a scene of life, and the second a scene of death. The stanzas take place in two separate rooms, creating a spatial as well as symbolic binary (appropriately, the Italian root of “stanza” is the word for “room”). Given the poem’s expectedly strict dichotomy between life and death, the surprising, even grotesque physical details of both scenes are what emphasize the poem’s primary point: the necessity of the discordant, animal energies of life as an alternative to the harsh physical fact of death.
As is often the case with Stevens’ poems, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” makes a claim about the nature of pure, basic human existence. In this case, however, Stevens explores this topic through a theatrical, demonstrative poem that embodies the disordered vivacity of life—not, for instance, the extremely sparse language and unattainable mental objectivity in “The Snow Man.” In stanza one, an ice cream party takes on surprisingly lustful tones due to Stevens’ word choice. As soon as he is introduced, the cigar roller’s masculinity is subtly emphasized by the phallic image of his “big cigars,” the mention of his muscles, and even the fierce, primal word “whip,” which, because it ends a line, raises readers’ expectations as to whom or what the man may be whipping. The most conspicuous word choice is “concupiscent,” an extravagant word that lends a mood of luxury to the scene and assigns the ice cream curds the surprising trait of being sexually desirous. Ice cream, then, is sharpened with a symbolically erotic and sensual edge.
Without this precedent, the dawdling wenches and flower-bearing boys might appear innocent, but given the tone, they also inevitably evoke romance and dalliance. The girls’ dawdling, and the speaker’s focus on their clothes, create an atmosphere of suspension, as if they are waiting for physical fulfillment. This fulfillment could perhaps come from the cigar man, or perhaps from the boys who enter carrying romantic symbols, if the girls are younger: the uncertainty of their ages adds to the sense of disorderly lust. The outdated newspapers, amid the waiting, imply a lack of responsibility on the part of the youths: no tasks to complete, an unhurried existence partly outside of time. The cryptic line, “Let be be finale of seem,” calls on us to accept this physical reality, in all its strangeness, as a plain fact: no further speculation. The title line, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream,” declares that, in this carnival of the kitchen, ice cream reigns supreme as the exemplary symbol of pleasure and indulgence. The rhyme that links these two lines establishes a final, declarative tone, urging us to accept reality as it is, and let ice cream have supreme importance for the day.
Stanza two switches focus drastically, still presenting specific, physical imagery, but now images of lack instead of excess. The cheap dresser, missing three knobs, evokes incompleteness, the loose ends of an ended life. Perhaps the woman, now deceased, fell ill before she got a chance to replace the knobs. A remnant of her creativity, in the form of an embroidered sheet, now poignantly serves only to cover her face; it, too, is incomplete, as it is too short to fully cover her. If the sheet, with its classically poetic symbol of birds, represents human-made art, its failure to completely hide the corpse demonstrates the inability of humans ever to fully ignore or disguise death using art, euphemism, or even poetry. An unexpected rhyme (come / dumb) emphasizes the finality of the death, as does the abrupt end of the phrase “and dumb,” oddly positioned at the end of its sentence. Because the grotesque physical fact of the woman’s dead feet cannot be ignored, the speaker accepts it by ordering the light to be focused, presumably on the body.
The second stanza, shifting to the poem’s second scene, brings into sharper relief the vivacious decadence of the first: only then do we realize that the boys’ flowers are likely brought for the funeral, but that their purpose has been symbolically sidetracked. Moreover, the woman’s “horny feet” contrast with the cigar roller’s muscles—flesh that is inert and useless rather than alive and capable—and given the connotation of “horny,” the woman represents the death of sexuality, in contrast with the lust in the kitchen. The first stanza’s characters’ apparent lack of attention to the death seems to assert an ironic fact of life: that we ignore certain tragedies in order to keep living.
This moment of the poem brings to clarity a choice that the speaker must make. Does the speaker linger in the kitchen with the ice cream eaters, oblivious to the death in the other room, or go face the cold reality of the corpse? The speaker does the latter, confronting the horny feet in the lamp light. However, having faced the dead body, the speaker seems to realize he must choose life over death, must eventually return to the ice cream party, even though life is naturally gaudy, crude, and full of animalistic desire. So, the speaker repeats the declaration that ultimately, the “emperor” of human life is ice cream, or what it represents: the disorderly, indulgent desires and instincts in which we all participate. The use of one final rhyme (beam / ice cream) emphasizes causality between the two last lines: because the speaker has faced the cold light of death, he is even more sure that if anything can offer meaning to life, it is the kind of vivacity symbolized by ice cream.