“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens requires several readings to gain an understanding of the poet’s meaning. The poem is open for different interpretations.
The narration is second person point of view with an observer as the narrator. He appears to speak from an omniscient perspective and he uses imperative mood. He changes the point of view in the last sentence to third person.
The poem is written in two stanzas with each carrying a different perspective. Each stanza has eight lines. The poem follows no specific pattern except that the last two lines of each stanza form a rhyming couplet.
The word choice in the poem reflects the theme of the poem. He chooses words for the sensuality of the poem: concupiscent, wenches, muscular. His connotation indicates that the wenches in the poem are prostitutes or minimally morally loose women.
The vocabulary used to describe the dead woman is not attractive and seems to say that fooling with someone who is dead is a waste of time. The choice of the title is not indicative of the poem itself. No one would expect a poem about death to be titled with anything to do with ice cream.
The poet uses several symbols in the poem.
He points out that the knobs on the dresser are missing. This detail would indicate that the lady who died had little money. The mention of the embroidery portrays someone who once loved pretty things and decorated them with aspects of nature. This cover is appropriately used to cover the corpse.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails3once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
Ice cream brings to mind pleasure and often merriment. However, here the fact that ice cream must be frozen to enjoy it relates to the state of the corpse. The fact that the ice cream must be enjoyed at the moment and in the present denotes the theme of seizing the day. Eat it while one can.
The theme of the poem could be summarized in “Carpe Diem.” Seize the opportunity to enjoy life before it is taken from the person. The people who knew the dead woman are going to have a party more for fun than to commemorate her life. The emperor of Ice Cream will preside at the party and give out the scoops of the luscious ice cream. Life must go on seems to be the attitude of the poet.
The first stanza talks about the activities in the kitchen preparing for the wake of the dead woman. The second setting in stanza two occurs in the bedroom with the corpse.
The speaker is calling together people to come to the wake of a woman who has died. He wants the men who make cigars to come. The ice cream will be made in different flavors in the kitchen. The women will come in dresses and stand around talking. The men will bring flowers wrapped up in newspaper bought on the corner. This is the finale for the woman who has died.
In the bedroom dresser, there is a sheet embroidered by the woman. Place it on her to cover her face. The sheet does not cover the woman’s feet. The poet describes the woman’s feet as horny implying that she has long toenails and has not been taking care of herself. The feet will turn blue to indicate how long she has been dead. She cannot speak and he uses an older word “dumb.” The lamp will shine, and life will go on.