The Emperor of Ice-Cream

by Wallace Stevens

Start Free Trial

  In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens, how do the words contribute to the image or scene the poet creates?   The words of interest used by Stevens are: wenches, last month’s newspapers, deal, and horny feet.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most pronounced affect these words and phrases have is to create a sense of duality and ambiguity in the poem "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" by Wallace Stevens: wenches, last month's newspapers, deal, horny feet. Stevens' plays upon the connotations of familiar definitions and usage while actually employing the denotations of less familiar definitions and their connotations.

Starting with "wenches," the popular connotation based on a Renaissance usage is of a woman of ill-repute working someplace like a tavern or inn. The original meaning of "wench" derived from Old English "wenchel" was girl or young woman, especially a country lass or reputable working girl like a milkmaid. These wenches "dawdle in such dress / As they used to wear," which might mean period costume in keeping with the antiquated word "wenches" or the more elegant and dignified dress of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (the 1960s is when women's clothing experienced a clothing schism).

The phrase "last month's newspapers" creates a similar duality. The immediate impression based on connotations is of neglected news, either from apathy or an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of current events. However the fact that flowers are wrapped in the newspapers creates another impression altogether, that being one of gifts borne in carefully stored paper used conservatively for household chores, as was commonly done up through the mid-twentieth century (and may still be done in places). The line "Let be be the final of seem" suggests a concrete action to create what would be desirable so that it becomes the reality of what is.

The word "deal" strikes up connotations of the illicit deals that shake the newspapers of today: drug deals; money laundering deals; dishonest banking deals; government deals to save crumbling financial, real estate, and industry institutions. However the next line, "Lacking the three glass knobs,..." attests to the fact that in this instance "deal" means boards made of pine or fir: the "dresser of deal" is a dresser, or chest of drawers, made of pine or fir wood.

The next lines reveal that this poem in a eulogy for a woman who has died:

... 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.

The slang connotation of "horny feet" has immediate association with the current age's preoccupation with licentious and obscene sexuality, however a less commonly used denotative meaning of "horny" is hardened and rough, heavily calloused. The denotative usage of the word in the poem calls up a picture of an old woman who has worked hard in life and has calloused, "horn" riddled feet, but who used to embroider fantails on beautiful sheets, one of which will cover her face in her hour of death, while her poet remarks on the futility and ultimate passing of life by declaring that the only all-powerful one is one who rules over ice-cream--which melts and is as short-lived as life itself.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team