The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is a short but intensely compacted poem of sixteen lines, divided into two stanzas. The title reflects the irony and complexity of the poem as a whole, perhaps suggesting that humans are no more resistant to death than ice cream is to the sun. The poem is filled with the visual imagery, wordplay, humor, and thematic tension common to Wallace Stevens’s poetry.

The poem is written in the third person, seemingly by someone who is assembling a group of people both to create and to attend a wake (it is common in some cultures to have a celebration of the life of the person who has died, with food and drink, after a time of mourning) for a poor woman. In stanza 1 there is a call for a person muscular enough to whip up desserts by hand; evidently there is not enough money for an electric mixer, let alone someone who would be paid to cater the food. The desserts will have to be served in kitchen cups; there is no fine china or crystal. The common people who will attend will come in their everyday clothes, rather than formal attire; the flowers will be brought in last month’s newspapers, rather than in vases, or as wreaths or other floral arrangements. All these details suggest that there is nothing fancy or special about death and its aftermath; indeed, in this poem, death is so ordinary as to be shocking and unusual rather than trite, because Stevens avoids the euphemisms and denials that often accompany the details and...

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The Emperor of Ice-Cream Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Language play is an important feature of this poem, as it is in many of Stevens’s poems. Given the associations many readers will have with curds (for example, curdled milk, which is spoiled, or Miss Muffett being scared by the spider), “concupiscent curds” (line 3) may seem like a poetic oxymoron (a conjunction of incongruous or contradictory terms). In fact, however, Stevens is pointing to the fact that something as ordinary and bland as milk may, if whipped properly, be turned into ice cream, a dessert that is to many people so luscious, sweet, and desirable that it is the object of a food-lust.

Other words are used as puns (words with multiple and often contradictory meanings, which may be serious as well as humorous); one example is “dumb” (line 14), which suggests both that the dead woman is no longer intelligent and that she is as mute and silent as the grave. Stevens also uses the sound devices of assonance and alliteration to emphasize the musical quality of the poem. In line 3, for example, “cups concupiscent curds” uses the alliterative device of four hard c sounds in only three words; “dresser of deal” in line 9 is alliterative in a similar fashion.

Another device common in the poem is the use of ordinary images to create an extraordinary scene. One such image is that of the person making the ice cream; he has strong enough hands, wrists, and forearms to do it because he makes hand-rolled cigars, a special art in Stevens’s time. A second image of those who will be attending the wake is the “wenches,” or serving girls; a wench is not only a serving girl but also, by connotation, a “loose woman.” The central image of the poem, however, is certainly “the emperor of ice-cream.” This metaphor is complex and ambiguous enough, in fact, to be a literary symbol rather than simply a metaphor.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.