The Emperor of Ice Cream: A Poetic Reflection on Life and Death


In the realm of poetry, profound emotions and abstract ideas often intermingle to create thought-provoking works that captivate our hearts and minds. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens is no exception. This enigmatic poem delves into the depths of human existence, exploring the finality of death and the intricate rituals surrounding it. Join me on a poetic journey as we unravel the layers of meaning hidden within this timeless masterpiece.

The Preparations: Stanzas of Contrast

The poem consists of two compelling eight-line stanzas, each conveying a distinct narrative. The first stanza paints a vivid picture of preparations for an event, though the nature of the occasion remains cryptic until later. In the heart of the kitchen, a man diligently rolls cigars while simultaneously crafting ice cream. The instructions for the women attending the event are simple: wear your everyday attire, no need for extravagance. And the boys, in a tender gesture, bring flowers carefully wrapped in yesterday’s news, eschewing ostentation. Amidst these scenes, the concluding lines of the stanza beckon us to ponder deeper truths: “Let be be finale of seem” – an invitation to embrace life as it truly is, not just as it appears. And then, surprisingly, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” – a statement that demands exploration.

In the second stanza, the veil of mystery is lifted, revealing a funeral or wake. The speaker, now clearly identified, prepares the body of an elderly woman for her final journey. With gentle care, he covers her face with an embroidered sheet, acknowledging the imperfection that leaves her feet exposed. This deliberate choice heightens the poignancy of her demise, a stark reminder of the undeniable reality of death. In this context, the repetition of “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” takes on a haunting significance, challenging our perceptions and unsettling our souls.

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Unveiling the Essence: A Poem of Death and Rituals

At its core, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” explores the profound theme of mortality. It delves into the finality of death, stripping away artifice and forcing us to confront the rawness of reality. In the rituals surrounding funerals, the poem uncovers insights about life, death, and society itself.

Embracing Ambiguity

Understanding the true meaning of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” requires an embrace of ambiguity. Unlike prose, poetry often relishes in multiple layers of meaning. As we navigate Stevens’ words, we encounter shifting interpretations, like rays of sunlight dancing through a stained glass window.

In the first stanza, simplicity emerges as a recurring motif. The speaker suggests minimalistic preparations for the funeral – “dawdle in such dress / As they are used to wear” – as if to say that excessive pomp and grandeur would veil the stark reality of death. The line “Let be be finale of seem” underscores the cessation of pretense, where the facade of life fades away, leaving only the immutable truth of mortality. The second stanza reinforces this sentiment, urging us to confront death without adornment, to let the exposed feet remind us of the unyielding finality of our existence.

A Literary Allusion

Within “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” we discover an intriguing allusion that sheds light on the poem’s meaning. The pivotal line, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream,” echoes a passage from Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. In Act IV, Scene II, Hamlet muses: “Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.” Here, death emerges as the ultimate sovereign, rendering all earthly distinctions moot. Stevens takes this notion and cloaks it in the enigmatic imagery of the “emperor of ice-cream,” presenting death as an omnipotent force that reigns supreme over human constructs.

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Themes Explored

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” weaves together various thematic threads, all intricately connected to the poem’s exploration of death and finality. The interplay between life and death serves as a cornerstone, evident in the contrasting settings of the two stanzas. The bustling kitchen symbolizes life, where sustenance is created, while the hushed bedroom becomes a haunting reminder of mortality, marked by missing drawer knobs and a sheet embroidered long ago.


In the realm of poetry, words become brushstrokes, painting a mesmerizing tapestry of human experience. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens invites us to explore the depths of our existence, challenging our perceptions of life, death, and the rituals that surround them. As we contemplate the finality of our own mortality, let us remember to savor each fleeting moment, embracing the reality that lies beneath the surface. For in the end, the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

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