Wallace Stevens

Pennsylvania / United States
Wallace Stevens
Pennsylvania / United States
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The Emperor Of Ice-Cream

Rating: 4.3
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Stella Crews 29 November 2020
She is dead the emperor Death is cold and sweet - the knobless casket, Finale: The big finish.
0 0 Reply
Michael Walker 30 July 2019
A compelling poem, which is actually about poverty-old clothes, 'last month's newspapers', 'the dresser of deal'. However, 'The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream'. Poorer children tend to love ice-cream. An obscure, but highly successful poem.
0 1 Reply
Bri Edwards 14 June 2016
: Let be be finale of seem...............? ? a curious? 2nd stanza, to say the LEAST! !
2 1 Reply
Susan Williams 29 February 2016
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.
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Vince Meegan 02 February 2014
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.
17 2 Reply
Vince Meegan 30 January 2014
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.
16 1 Reply
Barry Middleton 17 November 2013
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.
19 3 Reply
P Stafford 05 November 2013
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,
11 4 Reply
Paul Anderson 29 December 2012
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.
23 5 Reply
Johann Cat 26 October 2012
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.
28 7 Reply

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