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
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.
Seize the Day
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.
Attitude, Point of View
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.
Rhyme, and Repetition
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.
7: an Interpretation
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.
15: an Interpretation
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.
Missing knobs: Impoverishment
Accomplishment; an attempt to gain recognition through an artistic endeavor.
The fantails may also symbolize the futility of earthly endeavors. After
all, they end up on a sheet that covers a corpse.
Lamp: The light of
life that shines on those who live for the moment.
The Emperor of Ice
Cream By Wallace Stevens
Published in 1922
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid
In kitchen cups concupiscent1
curds.2 Let the wenches dawdle in
As they are used to wear,
and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the
emperor of ice-cream.
from the dresser of deal,
the three glass knobs, that sheet
which she embroidered fantails3
spread it so as to cover her face.
feet protrude, they come
show how cold she is, and dumb.
the lamp affix its beam.
only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Sensual; appealing to the senses
Coagulated milk. Curds consist of the solid part; the watery part is whey.
. . . fantails: Deal is wood, either pine or fir. There could be a
double meaning here. The second is that the dresser deals out the accoutrements
of an impoverished woman, including a sheet on which she embroidered images
of pigeons or even peacocks (fantails). Obviously, the woman opened the
dresser often, for now three pulls (glass knobs to open the drawers) are
Examples of Alliteration
Questions and Essay Topics
Who is to receive the flowers?
Ordinarily, people send flowers to express sympathy for the loss of a loved
one. Do you think the "boys" (Line 5) intend to give them to the "wenches"
What is the relationship of
the "mourners" to the deceased? Are they neighbors and casual acquaintances?
Are they relatives?
Who is the deceased woman? Although
her identity is unknown, certain words in the poem hint at what kind of
person she was and what kind of life she lived. Was she young, middle-aged,
or old? Was she artistic? Does the poem raise other questions about
her? If so, speculate on the answers to them.
Is the cigar roller the emperor?
Why does the narrator mention
that the woman once embroidered fantails on the sheet?