On "The Emperor of Ice Cream"


Helen Vendler

"For purposes of experiment, I have put the details the poem gives us into the form of a first-person narrative; I see the poem as a rewritten form of this ur-narrative, in which the narrative has been changed into an impersonal form, and the linear temporal structure of narrative form has been replaced by a strict geometric spatial construction – two rooms juxtaposed. Here (with apologies) is my conjectural narrative ur-form of the poem, constructed purely as an explanatory device:

I went, as a neighbor, to a house to help lay out the corpse of an old woman who had died alone; I was helping to prepare for the home wake. I entered, familiarly, not by the front door but by the kitchen door. I was shocked and repelled as I went into the kitchen by the disorderly festival going on inside: a big muscular neighbor who worked at the cigar-factory had been called in to crank the ice-cream machine, various neighbors had sent over their scullery-girls to help out and their yard-boys bearing newspaper-wrapped flowers from their yards to decorate the house and the bier: the scullery-girls were taking advantage of the occasion to dawdle around the kitchen and flirt with the yard-boys, and they were all waiting around to have a taste of the ice cream when it was finished. It all seemed to me crude and boisterous and squalid and unfeeling in the house of the dead – all that appetite, all that concupiscence.

Then I left the sexuality and gluttony of the kitchen, and went in to the death in the bedroom. The corpse of the old woman was lying exposed on the bed. My first impulse was to find a sheet to cover the corpse; I went to the cheap old pine dresser, but it was hard to get the sheet out of it because each of the three drawers was lacking a drawer-pull; she must have been too infirm to get to the store to get new glass knobs. But I got a sheet out, noticing that she had hand-embroidered a fantail border on it; she wanted to make it beautiful, even though she was so poor that she made her own sheets, and cut them as minimally as she could so as to get as many as possible out of a length of cloth. She cut them so short, in fact, that when I pulled the sheet up far enough to cover her face, it was too short to cover her feet. It was almost worse to have to look at her old calloused feet than to look at her face; somehow her feet were more dead, more mute, than her face had been

She is dead, and the fact cannot be hidden by any sheet. What remains after death, in the cold light of reality, is life – all of that life, with its coarse muscularity and crude hunger and greedy concupiscence, that is going on in the kitchen. The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau – the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom. Life offers no other tableaus of reality, once we pierce beneath appearances.


Helen Vendler

At the heart of many of Stevens's poems are harsh and unpalatable experiences revealed only gradually through his intense stylization. The famous poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," resisted explication for some decades, perhaps because no one took the trouble to deduce its implicit narrative from its stylized plot. (The Russian formalist distinction between "story" and "plot" is often useful for this and other Stevens poems.) The basic "story " of "The Emperor" is that of a person who goes to the house of a neighbor, a poor old woman, who has died; the person is to help "lay out" (arrange for decent viewing) the corpse in the bedroom, while other neighbors are sending over homegrown flowers, and yet others are preparing food, including ice cream, for the wake.

Stevens "plots" this story into two equal stanzas: one for the kitchen where the ice cream is being made, one for the bedroom where the corpse awaits decent covering. He "plots" it further by structuring the poem as a series of commands from an unknown master of ceremonies, directing--in a diction of extreme oddness--the neighbors in their funeral duties: "Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. /. . . / / Take from the dresser ... / ... that sheet /... / And spread it so as to cover her face." Both the symbolic kitchen stanza (life as concupiscence) and the symbolic bedroom stanza (death as final) end with the same third-order refrain echoed by the title: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Faced with life (however slovenly and appetitive) in the kitchen and death (with its protruding horny feet) on the bed, one must, however unwillingly, acquiesce in the reign of life.

We cannot know what personal events prompted this 1922 poem, apparently set in Key West (so the poet Elizabeth Bishop conjectured, who knew Key West, where Cubans worked at the machines in cigar factories, where blacks always had ice cream at funerals), but it derives resonance from Stevens's mother's death ten years earlier. What is certain is that it represents symbolically, with the Procrustean bed of its two rooms, the bitter moment of choosing life over death, at a time when life seems particularly lonely, self-serving, lustful, and sordid. Art is exposed as too scanty in its powers to cover up death; the embroidered sheet (a figure for the embellished page), if it is pulled up to cover the dead woman's face, reveals her "horny feet," which show "how cold she is, and dumb." In choosing to "let the lamp affix its beam," as in a morgue, and in acquiescing to the command, "Let be be finale of seem," Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. Copyright 1993 by Columbia UP.


Kia Penso

Here is an interesting experiment anyone can try if he or she has followed me this far: first, find an intelligent and discerning person who is perhaps not very interested in or familiar with Stevens' poems; this is not as difficult as it might seem. Get this person to read "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." (This person, obviously, has to be honest and not trying to ingratiate himself with you, i.e. willing to say "I don't get it.") Then try to explain, using only the one poem, why it is about belief. What details of that scene have anything to do with belief? "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is frequently anthologized, and yet, standing by itself it reads like lively wordplay that has carefully crafted the illusion of referring to something. We start out hearing some of the objects as symbols. But what could a deal dresser missing a few glass knobs be a symbol of? And a dead woman's protruding feet are much too distracting as objects in themselves to be pointing to something transcendent. The poem does refer to something, of course. The line "let be be finale of seem" can be explained. But it is not a simple task to explain what it has to do with the action in the rest of the poem. Part of the meaning of the poem comes from the speaker's zest for details, which he possesses even in this setting. The attitude is expressed in the tone of voice and in details such as the fantails embroidered on the sheet. Why notice the embroidery now? These little, illuminated details nevertheless come to the narrator's attention in the flow of the practical tasks. It's the bright, unillusioned sufficiency of all this together that makes the narrator say "Let be be finale of seem." All of which can be explained to someone, but doesn’t guarantee that they will see it for themselves. This experiment reveals two things: 1) how Stevens’ poems are interrelated, and 2) how even though they are interrelated the individual poem makes a very vigorous claim--it demands that we learn to think in its idiom.

From Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, and The Whole of Harmonium. Archon Books. Copyright 1991


Milton J. Bates

That Stevens could write a pure poem without recourse to Symbolist metaphysics or exoticism is brilliantly demonstrated in a piece like "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." Here, the impending night of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Domination of Black" has descended, quenching not only the woman's life but also any possibility of protest. Instead, the poem affixes its relentless beam up[on the common, even repellent details of the woman's room and her corpse. In a voice that suggests the sideshow barker rather than the unctuous minister or funeral director, the speaker of the poem insists that the naturalistic "be" replace the religious or romantic "seem." He calls for a wake devoid of pomp and ceremony; the mourners (or are they celebrants?) are to wear their workaday clothes and one of them, the muscular cigar maker, will serve ice cream--a symbol not only of life's ephemeral pleasures but also, as Stevens told R.P. Blackmur, "of the materialism or realism proper to a refugee from the imagination."

Not that "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is an unimaginative poem. Though Stevens spoke of its "deliberately commonplace costume" when he chose it as his favorite in 1933, he also said that it seemed to him to contain something of the "essential gaudiness" of poetry. These remarks seems contradictory until one remembers that Stevens, in keeping with a fundamental precept of pure poetry, typically inverted the usual hierarchy of subject and style. Since poetry is the true subject of a pure poem, the ostensible subject is, relatively speaking, mere "costume." Such costume is not dispensable, however. "Poetry is like anything else," Stevens told Latimer; "it cannot be made suddenly to drop all its rags and stand out naked, fully disclosed." Consequently, though the "essential gaudiness" of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" lies in its expressive diction and oratorical flair, "The Emperor" does have clothes: the woman's wake. Because its costume is so prosaic--as compared, for example, with "Domination of Black"--the poem is a triumph of attitude over reference. Ostensibly an endorsement of "be," it testifies still more eloquently to the power of "seem." One is not surprised to learn that Stevens, when he tried to recall the inception of the poem years later, could remember the "state of mind" which gave rise to it but not the external occasion.

from Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Copyright 1985 by the University of California Press.


Kenneth Lincoln

This little nonsense ditty takes a serious turn at the stanza break. Someone and somethings are missing. The woman's dresser, where she "used to wear" lingerie, lacks "three glass knobs" (three-in-a-jar trinity?), and her bedding may be too short to cover both head and feet. Her prone body, mocking how the wench lived, lies flat in the indignity of death. "If her horny feet protrude," those limb ends tell us "how cold she is, and dumb."

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal "knobs" transpose to "horny" bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman's body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her "horny feet" index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and "dumb" as the "slovenly wilderness": feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate "base" of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered "fantails" on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, "Let the lamp" of nature "affix its beam," the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset. As elsewhere, the well dressed man with a beard finds,

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.

Dreaming jouissance is critical. The imagination, Stevens said in his Letters, is "like light, it adds nothing, except itself." The "supreme fiction," lighting us to the end, is to believe in our world, "my green, my fluent mundo," as one lives and faces death in others (no less than Emily Dickinson a-wake or Sitting Bull the sash-wearer). Poetry is to imagine well what must be. "The final belief is to believe in a fiction," Stevens wrote in Adagia, "which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly" (reflective chronotope turned precept).

With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of "The Snow Man"). There's a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in "cream" made of "ice" (Carolina "aspic nipples" sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter's absence, the snow man's "nothing" curdled by sweet belief.

from Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.


Return to Wallace Stevens