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Wallace Stevens’ poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream was published in the collection of poems ‘Harmonium’ in 1923. This brief poem, which has two stanzas of equal length, discusses how to prepare a funeral for a deceased woman. It is a well-known absurd poem that depicts reality without including any kind of scene-related illusion.
About the poet
American modernist poet Wallace Stevens was raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, received his education at Harvard and the New York Law School, and then worked as an executive for an insurance business in Hartford, Connecticut. For his Collected Poems, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955. In 1923, Stevens published Harmonium, which was followed by Ideas of Order, The Man with the Blue Guitar, and Parts of a World. A few of his most well-known poems include “The Auroras of Autumn,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Sunday Morning,” “The Snow Man,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
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.
The speaker provides background information and discusses an odd gathering. He summons the roller of big cigars and asks him to prepare indulgent curds in kitchen cups. The speaker describes the boys who deliver flowers wrapped in old newspapers and the women, or “wenches,” who are dressed in their usual attire. The speaker asserts that the final reality is what appears to be. He claims that the person in charge of the ice cream is the real emperor or ruler.
In this verse, the juxtaposition of ordinary and extravagant items is highlighted for its contrast and irony. Big cigars and delicious curds in kitchen cups hint at a luxurious gathering, while the informal attire and usage of newspapers to wrap flowers emphasize the scene’s unusualness. The expression “Let be be finale of seem” implies that reality should be accepted in its current state without making any attempts to hide or distort it. The poem’s concluding line, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream,” is memorable and mysterious, implying that real importance and power can be found in little, fleeting pleasures rather than extravagant displays of dominance. The picture of ice cream questions conventional ideas of position and power while evoking a sense of outlandish celebration and delving into the complex relationship between appearance and reality.
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.
The author draws the reader’s attention to a particular scene. A dresser made of deal wood is mentioned, but three of its glass knobs are missing. The woman in the scenario formerly used a sheet on the dresser to embroider fantails, as the speaker mentions. She has now spread the sheet over her face, perhaps to cover something or defend herself. The speaker makes a comment on her feet, calling them “horny” and projecting, implying a feeling of stillness and coldness. The speaker then makes a reference to a lamp’s beam. The phrase “the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” is repeated towards the end of the verses.
In the poem’s lines, a woman is seen hiding beneath an embroidered sheet and glass dresser knobs, displaying a feeling of sadness. The “horny” feet of the woman represents emotional numbness and lifelessness, while the lamp affixing its beam denotes lighting and brightness. The phrase “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” is used often to emphasize the idea that life is temporary and that there is only one monarch. Readers are encouraged to consider the intricacies of life and the need of appreciating its brief joys through the use of rich images and contrasts. The ice-cream serves as a metaphor for the poem’s primary subject, which is the transitory pleasures and straightforward delights of life.