‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ by Wallace Stevens is a two stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines. In regards to form, the poem does not stick to one specific pattern of rhyme. But there are moments in which the end sounds rhyme though, such as within the couplets that appear at the end of both stanzas. While at first the poem may seem structured, especially considering the alliteration in the first stanza. The lines flow into one anther, stopping only at points of enjambement.
The syntax Stevens used in the text is often vague and confusing. This can be seen prominently in the last lines of both stanza. His use of the strange image of the “emperor of ice-cream” makes for a disarming change of tone. The text is also rather short. This makes every line and every word of those lines all the more important. It is not until the end that the importance of Stevens’ theme becomes clear. The poem is concerned with the universality of death, seen through a lack of ceremony and an equality between emperors and normal men and women. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Emperor of Ice-Cream
‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ by Wallace Stevens speaks on one’s inability to control death and ability to live a good life.
The poem begins with the speaker asking that the listener fetch a strong man to roll cigarettes. There is some kind of celebration occurring. The celebratory atmosphere is lessened by the speaker who tells everyone to go on acting as they always have. There is no reason to stand on ceremony.
By the time a reader gets to the second stanza it becomes clear that the event in question is a woman’s death. She will be put to rest just like everyone else who has ever lived. There is no way to escape death.
Analysis of The Emperor of Ice-Cream
In the first lines of this piece the speaker asserts his dominance by giving a command. He tells someone, the reader does not know who, to call in the “roller of big cigars.” It is likely that there is something important happening or an occasion to be marked. The cigar is going to be a big one, rolled by the most “muscular” of the rollers. This will guarantee its quality.
The speaker gives a second command to the listener. They are to go to the roller and tell him, or “bid” him, to “whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent,” or lust-filled, “curds.” This strange line becomes clearer when one reconsiders the title. The text is ultimately concerned with a metaphor utilizing ice cream and someone who is the “emperor” of it. Stevens used the word “curds,” which are lumps of congealed milk, to refer to the dessert. This choice was also made in part to maintain the alliteration. The line makes use of four instances of the hard ‘c’ sound. In fact, all but one word of this line begins with a hard ‘c.’
Aside from the attractive sounds created by the line, it also reveals the setting to be somewhere more intimate. Perhaps the speaker and his listener are in a house. They are at the very least somewhere that has a kitchen.
The next line includes the word “wench.” It has traditionally been used to refer to a female prostitute or a woman whose life was in some way not her own. The speaker is offhandedly referring to these types of women and at once telling them to wear “such dress” as they are “used to wear.” Whatever the occasion is, there is no reason for the women to wear anything other than what they’re used to.
The speaker moves on to refer to the “boys.” This is a similar statement in that it calls for no grand preparations. The flowers can come in any wrapping, even a newspaper from the previous month. He is suggesting that in another more formal setting, only this month’s newspaper would do.
The seventh and eighth lines are couplets and begin with the confusing repetition of “be.” In a clearer rephrasing of the line the speaker is asking that life’s “be[ing]” be left alone. He does not want anyone to do anything that would obscure reality. Everyone should live as they always have, regardless of the still as yet unknown event.
Finally the speaker introduces the “emperor of ice-cream” in the eighth line. The title is meant to sound lighthearted and cast the concept of “emperor” in a different light. Rather than the person bearing this title being regarded as someone to fear, they are instead simply in charge of the ice cream. There is an interesting comparison between the role of an emperor, or any ruler, and whether or not their job is important. At the same time he is setting ice cream up as something that needs a ruler or overseer. It is important enough that someone should be in charge of every bit of it that exists in the world.
In the second stanza it becomes clear that the event the speaker is preparing for is a funeral, rather than any kind of traditionally celebratory occasion. This stanza also begins with a command. This time the speaker is asking the listener to go into the bedroom of the house and look at the “dresser of deal.” Deal is the name of a low quality wood that is readily available. The cheap material the dresser is made of adds to the informal setting and mood of the text. It is further emphasized by the fact that the dresser is missing “three glass knobs.”
He asks that a certain piece of embroidery is bought from the dresser and used to “cover her face.” The woman who has died once worked on a piece of sewing featuring “fantails.” The word “fantail” is ambiguous but likely refers to a kind of bird with a widely spread, or fanned, tail. He wants it to cover her face in death. It is clear the speaker believes this piece of work to represent her somehow. It could be the act of sewing that is significant or the imagery she was focused on.
Lines five and six are a rhyming couplet and contain one strong statement about death. The woman is dead nearby and the speaker knows that well. He is directing his listener emotionally. He tells them that if they see her “horny feet” and become disturbed, all they have to do is remember that they are only there as a symbol of death. It is universal and inescapable. Therefore one should welcome the chance to confront it.
The last two lines are also a couplet, just like the final lines of the first stanza. Here the speaker is asking that someone light a lamp. Its beam needs to be “affix[ed]” or stuck. He is asking that something, likely his opinions about death, be made clear to a larger group.
Stevens’ speaker returns again to the concept of the emperor. Now, after revealing his opinion regarding death, the allusion makes more sense. The only person who really has any power is the one who watches over joy and a life well-lived. All others, who seek out loftier goals, are wasting their time. There is no way to control that much of the world— just as one cannot control death.