(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A poem that Stevens once described as his favorite, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” so puzzled its first readers that an ice cream company wrote to Stevens about it, asking whether the poem was in favor of ice cream or against it. Ice cream suggests the evanescent pleasures of life; one could answer, then, that the poem is for it.

This poem is set up as a counterpoint between a scene of a funeral and images of enjoyment. The first lines suggest a sensual celebration, as cigars, “concupiscent curds,” and “wenches” are mentioned. Yet the temporary quality of all this is suggested by the lines, “let the boys/ Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.” The flowers are vivid blooms of the day, but last month’s news is only history, fit to wrap flowers in. “Let be be finale of seem,/ The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream,” the first of the poem’s two sections concludes. That is, one should accept whatever seems to be as what is, including flowers and history. One should not attempt to put prefabricated interpretations on life; rather, accept it in its transience and enjoy its vivid delights.

The second section presents a dead woman who, although she was poor (she had a “dresser of deal”—deal being cheap wood—and it was moreover “lacking three glass knobs”), still managed to adorn her impoverished life. She embroidered figures on her plain sheets, giving them life and color. (The “fantails” she embroidered may be either birds or goldfish.) The sheets she embroidered should be her epitaph. The poem suggests: Let each one take pleasure in the world commensurate with his or her ability to enjoy, because there is no other world. The final line echoes, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

The poem is memorable for its double focus—the impoverished death on one side and the wild sensual celebrations on the other. The doubleness of the poem is underscored by the two-stanza division with the shared last line, as well as by the single rhyme in the poem that concludes each section.