A Poem by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
A Study Guide
The time is the early 20th Century. (The poem was published in 1922). The place is the residence of a deceased woman in an American city. It is uncertain whether the residence is a house or an apartment. Apparently people of Latin-American ancestry live in the neighborhood and roll cigars (wrap cured tobacco in a cigar leaf) to earn money. The narrator (speaker/persona) calls for a muscular cigar roller to make ice cream to be served to visitors attending the wake (viewing) for the deceased woman. In earlier times, a wake frequently took place in the home of the deceased. Besides paying their last respects to the dead person, visitors often ate, drank, and told stories. Thus, a wake was sometimes a festive occasion. In "The Emperor of Ice Cream," the narrator tells what will happen before and during the wake. There will be the ice cream, and men from the neighborhood will bring flowers. The male and female visitors will probably flirt and make eyes. The dead woman will lie in her bedroom under a bedsheet that covers her face and body but exposes her callused feet. The visitors will occupy themselves mainly with socializing and having fun, not with mourning the loss of a neighbor.
"The Emperor of Ice Cream" is open to interpretation. Although the poem suggests meanings behind the words, it does not not explicitly state the meanings. Whereas one reader may regard the planned festivity at the wake as disrespectful to the deceased woman, another reader may regard it as a positive response to the woman's death. After all, life must go on. The point is that perceptions of the world differ from person to person. They are like images on the canvases of painters from different schools of art, painters who have unique perceptions of reality even within their own school. All of the painters could paint the same scene--a field of flowers, for example--and all the paintings would be different in some way. The interpretations of the poem presented on this page are certainly not definitive or absolute. They are only one person's interpretation of what the author presents.
The woman's death presents an opportunity for her acquaintances to hold a party. The pleasure they will derive from the occasion apparently matters more than the memory of the deceased woman they are supposed to be mourning. No doubt, the women who attend will pay homage to the muscular man who makes the "concupiscent curds" (Line 3)--that is, appetizing, sensual curds that will constitute the ice cream. He and the ice cream represent sensual or physical pleasure. In turn, the "boys" (Line 5) will no doubt want to live it up with the "wenches" (Line 4), even if they are attending a wake. Everyone wants to seize the day--carpe diem. The Emperor of Ice Cream will preside at the festivities, dispensing pleasure by the dollop.
The poem does not reveal the identity the narrator. He appears to speak from a godlike, distant, omniscient perspective even though he uses imperative mood and second-person point of view in all the sentences except the last one of each stanza. What appear to be commands to people nearby ("Call the roller of big cigars," Line 1) are really comments
on what the wake attendees are likely to do. Suppose, for example, you heard a forecast predicting heavy snow. In response, you might say to someone, "Put on your boots and get your snow shovel. There's going to be a blizzard." You would not actually be ordering the person to get a shovel. Instead, you would be commenting on what will likely happen. The narrator's approach is demonstrated plainly
in the 15th line of the poem: "Let the lamp affix its beam." Obviously, he could not order the lamp (a symbol of the light of life) to perform an action. Whether the narrator approves of the partying about to take place is unknown. He (or she) leaves it up to the reader to pass judgment on its propriety.
Wallace Stevens chooses words that subtly reinforce his theme. For example, words that suggest sensuality and appetite are muscular, concupiscent, ice cream, and wenches. (One connotation of wench is a morally loose woman.)A word that suggests leisure (vs the drudgery of labor, suggested by the dead woman's callused feet) is dawdle. The woman's feet also suggest the unwelcome intrusion of death, inasmuch as they are protusions extending beyond the length of the sheet--grim reminders that life is too short to let pass any opportunity to engage in pleasurable activity. Dumb means mute. In this poem, it may also suggest that it is stupid to waste time on a "dumb thing," death.
The meter of the poem varies, as does the pattern of accents. The last two lines of Stanzas 1 and 2 each form a couplet (a pair of lines with end rhyme), and the last line of the second stanza repeats the last line of the first.
To get the sense of this line, one must read it with stress on the first be: "Let BE be the finale of seem." In other words, let what actually is become the end of what seems to be. Thus, the women will wear everyday clothes, not dignified attire; the boys will bring flowers wrapped in old newspapers, not flowers arranged in sprays and wreaths. Finally, the attendees will not pretend or seem to mourn. Instead, they will use the occasion to socialize and enjoy "concupiscent curds." As for the deceased herself, who cares if the sheet is too short to cover her feet? Let her BE as she is now--a cold, mute corpse lying with her callused feet exposed, a reminder that life is too short and that one should enjoy life while it lasts.
Line 15, "Let the lamp affix its beam," appears to say, "Let us now place our attention, our spotlight, on life, not death." The attendees will walk in the light of life, not in the darkness of death.
Ice Cream: Sensuality, pleasure; seizure of the moment, the here and now. Ice cream melts quickly, as does time and the opportunities it presents. One must eat, drink, and be merry before the opportunity passes.