I wish I was a member of this site back in 2007 or so- -I have learned so much reading these people's comments below! So much more informative than beautiful and I like this kind of remarks that flood the comments these days. I think these comments below say more and say it better and clearer than I so I shall just comment on the commentators that they are a brilliant group and obviously love the written word. We who love poetry salute you wherever you are.
I should have added to my comment that if the poem was written around the date of publication (1923) then it would have been during prohibition. Perhaps ice cream was the best hospitality that could be legally offered in those times.
To my mind, this is a series of commands or orders issued by the principle female and elderly mourner - perhaps a grief stricken relation unfamiliar with the friends and acquaintances of the deceased - at the wake of a recently dead female. Perhaps Stevens witnessed this incident in his youth.
Poor folks are turning up in their ordinary street clothes to pay their respects, and some clutch cheap bunches of flowers. These informalities are acquiesced to. The roller of big cigars is referred to in those terms because the mistress of ceremonies knows only his trade but not his name, as is so often the case with neighbours.
Someone is directed to find a specific sheet to partly shroud the corpse, and its whereabouts are described.
The worthiness of the sheet for this role being that it had been embroidered by the deceased herself. And if too short for purpose, it reminds all beholders that they are in the presence of death.
'Let be' be finale of seem. Allow things to take their course; this is life and death in the raw. Seem, in this context meaning 'conduct'. As in unseemly behaviour.
The only emperor is the ice cream that will offer some small comfort to all those present. Nothing else can.
Whether or not ice-cream is served at Key West funerals has been disputed but I have seen ice-cream and cake served at funerals in the south. There is also discussion as to whether this is a funeral or a wake. I want to say, what difference does that make. The poem is about so much more that its details but here we go.
IMO the roller of big cigars does remind me of Florida and cigar makers and this particular guy is strong, which is the man you need to turn the crank on an ice-cream maker. I believe that this is a wake and it is for a very poor woman who has died very recently. She was a plain woman who would not mind the girls coming in their everyday cloths and flowers cut from gardens and wrapped in newspaper would have been fine with her. Her life is over, it is what it is and it is what it seems - she's dead and there is noting more to do other than this modest celebration of her life.
Now yes, it is unusual, if this is a wake, that the body has not been placed in a coffin yet. But it may be the case in some culture, I don't know. I believe this event was witnessed by Stevens as he could have placed her in a coffin at no expense if he wished. At any rate, this body is not in a coffin, there are hints that she may still be in her bedroom, near the dresser where her linens are kept. The narrator comments that it makes no difference if her feet stick out, she is after all cold, and mute - she will not object. Lastly, turn on the lamp so people can come in and pay their respects because this is it for this lady - there is no emperor where she goes, only this service and it's lights out.
So what is the point Stevens is making? All argument aside that is what seems so simple about this poem. We live our lives, there is really not much dignity to life for in the end only a few common folk will gather round to say goodby and there is no emperor of ice-cream in the sky but only here on the earth.
After giving it some consideration, I thought the dead lady in the second stanza might refer to the spokeswomen of the WCTU, as the poem was written during Prohibition...the reference to cigars might have been directed towards Jane Heap, to whom, along with Margaret C. Anderson, he may have submitted the poem for publication in their literary magazine, The Little Review..(.I think I remember reading somewhere she smoked cigars) ...He held a high post in the Insurance industry, and needed a conservative image, unlike the expatriates who normally got space in the pages of their magazine...I think he was suggesting people hold on a bit...America was going through growing pains...and maybe an ice cream social would do for party for the time being...It was, incidentally, not illegal to make wine at home during the breech...I think he thought the in crowd was being too rash, maybe, and being something not so uplifting to the Americans they left behind in the ditch,
The first stanza is about pleasure. The second stanza is about grief. The ice cream is used in both stanzas as a symbol of transience. These themes should be familiar to anyone who has read Stevens' poetry.
I agree with Johann Cat that the insistence that the party in the first stanza is at a funeral is unnecessary. Some have given cogent explanations of the imagery as being typical of preparations for a funeral, such as a New Orleans funeral or Irish wake where raucous music is played. However, that is neither here nor there. It is an example of Stevens' sensory delight and playfulness. This is the poet who in another poem described himself as Tom-tom c'est moi.
The second stanza is apparently widely misunderstood. The declamatory narrator is not speaking to a crowd now but rather to himself. He takes from the cheap, once fancier, dresser a sheet on which the dead woman embroidered fantails once. Who would know this? He spreads it on her, but it doesn't quite cover her feet. Her feet are not beautiful; they come only to show how cold she is and dumb. I hope you never have to visit a deceased loved one, such as your mother, in the reduced circumstances we find here. But there is nothing you can do about it. Let the lamp affix its beam; the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. Perhaps then, if not upon reading this poem, a deep up-pouring from some saltier well within you will burst its watery syllable.
There is no obvious funeral or wake in this poem. People who are so recently dead that they are being covered by a sheet in their own beds are not about to be buried, nor are they subject to celebrations in the next room. Funerals usually do not take place in peoples' bedrooms (dressers are typically objects of furniture in bedrooms) . The second stanza is more likely a death room scene than a wake. The party with boys and wenches and the cigar-rolling caterer, ice cream, and flowers does not have to be related, as if in a linear narrative, to the woman in her bed being covered by the fantail-embroidered sheet, but it is thematically related, in sensuous exuberance; this is a high modernist poem, not a short story from 1877. (Do we insist that Marie in Section One of The Waste Land is somehow a business associate of the Hyancith Girl or of Tristan, a few lines later? No. We understand them to be thematically related) . The festive motto of the party with boys who bring flowers is also the same being-in-time/ seize-the-day motto that applies to the room of the newly dead: The only emperor/ Is the emperor of ice cream. I find the thematic power of the poem (which relies on the resonance of the two stanzas' images against each other, not on an obvious story) weakened by the attempt, common online, to narratize this poem into a wake, though it is possible to do so. But are funereal flowers brought wrapped in newspapers? No, but flowers brought to dates are. Why would boys bring flowers wrapped in newspaper to dawdling wenches at a wake? Do wenches dawdle in their usual dresses at wakes? It is more likely that they are dawdling at some undefined party. These two stanzas do not have to be easily spatially or temporally connected, because the thematic relationship-in the motto to seize life as one can-is dominant.
I think that this is a poem written from a moment (biographical or not) of angry and rebellious atheism. As a fallen believer, I have written many such poems myself. And it was perhaps this poem that first empowered my falling-many years ago.
There is no emperor (God) , there is only ice cream- the reality of cigars, muscles, concupiscence, deal, rough feet, plain dress, and the cold light of objectivity.
'Let BE be finale of SEEM'- There is no God, but ice cream is very real. Or, as the 'curds' are 'concupiscent, ' SEX is very real.
This poem has been stuck in my head since college - several decades ago, and I sought out analyses becuase I think it's finally making sense to me. I agree that it's a funeral poem. I believe it's about the transient and insubstantial nature of sensual pleasure. I read it as the sad epitaph of a pleasure-seeker. Instead of a eulogy, we call to her funeral one of the the hunky guys she hung with to 'whip up' a testament to her. Her friends are wenches, who dawdle [diddle] and are used [used goods} to wear. 'Seem' was the pursuit of pleasure, 'be' is the finale stone cold death. The sheet on which she once embroidered was her attmept at doing something substantial in life, yet when we cover her with it, it fails to cover her 'horny' feet, the reality of her bodily existence. She bowed in life to the emperor of bodily pleasure, the emperor of that which melts away. In death she meets the reality of a wasted life.
A commentary on how members of a society honor their dead, The Emperor of Ice Cream allows the reader's personal opinon to dictate how they interpret the lines. It was written from the distant, omniscient angle revealed in the last line of each stanza, but frequently makes use of a wonderfully convertable, imperative, second-person viewpoint. This allows statements like “let the wenches dawdle in such dress / As they are used to wear, ” be taken as contemptuous OR permissive. The intent of the poem is to provoke an analysis, to get the reader to look closely at the attitude of the men and women who gather to pay their last respects.
The street “roller of big cigars” is given the task of serving ice cream, a food associated with things like triviality, brievity, sensuality, and the notion of carpe diem. This 'emperor of ice cream' then becomes a central figure in the dead woman's wake (funereal gathering) , to whom the wenches and boys who brought “flowers in last month's newspapers” keep coming back and back. Line 7 encapsluates the first stanza. It suggests (but does not confirm) a 'permissive' attitude towards the festivities, stating that what is happening now is the best course of action, and that this frivolty in the presence of death is concurrent with the reality that life goes on. It suggests that honest ice cream is more respectful than a crowd of somber black-clad mourners doing what is socially expected while wishing for flirtation and fun.
The woman lying covered in a self-embroidered sheet either doesn't care how her neighbors/family react to her death, or is unable to protest. The 'three glass knobs' missing from the dresser in her room imply either simple impoverishment or post-mortem burglary. Line 15 is a summarization of the poem's theme, written from that interchangeable second-person viewpoint. The lamp light is a metaphor for the mental focus of society and the individual, whose attention needs to be replaced on the tragedy of death and discount the magic of life. Or vice versa.
I've always loved this poem, for what it has to say, for how it was written and even the fact that it took me a long time to get into it, though the message is pretty straight forward. Maybe it was the vocabulary. I've been fascinated by it from the first reading.
Anyhow, with the opening line, 'Call... The muscular one... concupiscent [lustful] curds...', I think Stevens is saying that life is grounded in the physical, and not only that, but also that we are driven and ruled by the yearning, pursuit and satisfaction of our desires, especially the physical ones.
In fact, despite all of our history and great political movements and civilized accomplishments ('flowers wrapped in last months newspapers') , these simple needs and desires, even biological concerns, are at the core of everything we do. 'The emperor of ice cream' is simple desire personified, desire on an instinctual level. All this hustle and bustle, love and want of love, or just the attainment of a more extravagant luxury, this is life and it's who we are. 'Be (reality) ' really is the 'finale of seem'.
Furthermore, I think Stevens admires the hustle and bustle of humanity going about its various pursuits. In the second stanza Stevens is confirming that being driven by desire is as it should be, because without desire life is cheap furniture like a 'dresser of deal', cold and colorless like dead flesh. In this funeral scene the only things to be noted with interest are the
'embroidered fantails' on a sheet that the deceased had tried to make more beautiful, more desirable.
'Let the lamp affix its beam, ' you can dress it up or look at it directly under the cold, bright lamp of the mortician, but in the end death is of little consequence. There is nothing in death, nothing to long for, nothing to admire.
I should have passed this by I fear, but never mind.
The name attracted and having read it I now as always feel compelled to stick something in the box. I have no prior knowledge of Stevens or this poem, so all of this will be shot in the dark stuff.
My first impression - I will probably come back to this when I've had a closer look at Stevens and the poem and no doubt delet this comment - is that the Emperor of Ice Cream is death - cold, very! Who makes cold like death? Pretty obvious you'll say, but I've got to work my way in by little steps. The implication of that interpretation is clear enough. Assumption of status, wealth, power, whatever is vain, transient and fragile. (Clear echoes of Gray of course) .
The first 3 lines enact that implication by reducing wealth and power to kitchen duties (big cigar and muscular) , and quite dismissively too, by use of the word 'bid' line 2.
All men and women are then assigned their roles in life, in the figures of boys and wenches. Some elaboration of the roles he attributes and his perspective on them is no doubt contained in the images - but these do not appear to threaten this interpretation at this stage.
He then reconciles a major philosophical question, the problem of appearance and 'reality' by making rational/sound 'seeming' the equivalent of reality - a good enough reality for us to work with being the implication - and thereby bridges the gap that Hume, Kant et al couldn't or wouldn't (though Rand was happy to and did it convincingly with ease) .
The purpose of stanza 1 in my view is to set the scene with reductionist - though very persuasive - abstractions carried by simplified images.
Stanza 2 is the concrete, the reality, in the form of an actual death furnished poetically with its grim details - the lamp being used as a device enable us to see clearly that yes in the final analysis death has no rivals in the power stakes.
Perhaps a perverse take. Probably a perverse take, based on too little considered study. I'll have another shot later once I've done a little spade work.
In the past few weeks I've read several attempts to explain this poem on a literal level; most by very erudite people, but none very satisfying. They all seem extremely artificial to me.
It seems to me the only way this poem truly makes sense is if I view the opening stanza as taking place after a funeral, and the second stanza as taking place in preparation for the funeral, as a sort of flashback if you will.
I don't have any support for this view in the text of the poem itself. But then, flashbacks rarely announce themselves. Moreover, I don't know of any culture or locale in which the wake precedes preparation of the body for burial. However, that may simply be a result of my own ignorance.
In the first stanza, it seems to me, we hear the voice of someone 'in charge, ' and telling people what to do. (Get Uncle Charley to dish up the ice cream, tell the girls to change into their everyday clothes, and have the boys bring the flowers over here.) The nature of these tasks tells me that the funeral is over. People are perhaps still a little dazed by the ceremony and by the loss itself. There is an effort to get things to return somehow to normal. 'Let be be finale of seem.' The whole thing doesn't seem real. But reality will be the finale of appearance. Stop fighting it.
In the second stanza, the same person is making preparations for the funeral. (Someone go up to the dresser-the one missing the knobs-and bring down some of her linen, the sheets with the birds embroidered on it. We'll need a shroud and we don't want her feet to show. It's awfully dark in here, would you get the light?)
And throughout, the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. We have so little control over any part of our lives, we might only be an emperor of ice-cream. Still, our dreams remain lofty enough that Stevens can translate all this into a formal discourse. 'Concupiscent curds...wenches dawdle...Take from the dresser of deal...' Stevens' use of language elevates the ordinary, and celebrates the sensuous, but then bursts the bubble with 'the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.'
Part of the irony here, of course, is the fact that the voice seems to be in control of everything. But the voice is actually in control of nothing, not even whether the shroud will cover the feet of the deceased.
Stevens juxtaposes grandiloquent language with plain or even impoverished characters. But is his intent to disparage or ridicule? I don't think so. I don't take from this poem a criticism of the characters in it. They do not appear pompous or even silly. Instead I see in them an effort to maintain some sense of decorum or dignity, even though in the end we have neither. Or perhaps only the dignity we bestow upon ourselves.