Last Updated September 5, 2023.
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens is a whimsical poem of sixteen lines. The piece was published in 1922 in Wallace’s poetry collection titled Harmonium. The poem is regarded for its whimsical nature and unusual subject matter, seeming to be about a burial paired with the repetition of the title phrase.
When the poem begins, the speaker says that it is time to call the person who can roll cigars so that he can "whip" up some ice cream from "concupiscent curds"—an odd word choice (concupiscent means lusty)—in the kitchen. Young girls (referred to as “wenches” here) are hanging around in their dresses. They seem to be in their typical, everyday attire. Also in the kitchen are the young boys. They have been tasked with bringing flowers wrapped in old newspapers—last month’s newspapers, to be precise. The last two lines of the first stanza are less obvious in meaning than the previous few. "Let be be finale of seem" reads as if referring to the end of appearances, or things that seem rather than things that are. It is possible that the poet’s narrator ends this stanza hinting that the poem is more grounded in reality than idealism. The first stanza ends with the puzzling title phrase, iterating that “the emperor of ice-cream” is the only emperor.
The second stanza seems to focus on a body's preparation for burial. The setting appears to have shifted from the context of the beginning; we are no longer in the kitchen where the ice cream is being made. Now, the poem depicts funeral arrangements being made for an old woman who has died. There is a "dresser of deal," which likely refers to a coffin made of either pine or fir wood that is sold at a cheaper price. The dresser (or coffin) is further detailed as being without “three glass knobs.” It is possible this is a reference to the storage drawers typically associated with such a dresser. There are no drawers or knobs, though, as the dead old woman occupies the space. A sheet that the dead woman once embroidered with birds is "spread” by someone “so as to cover her face." We understand that this sheet covers her body, perhaps for ceremonial or viewing purposes. Her "horny feet" might be calloused or bunioned in her old age, giving the appearance of horns. Her feet might stick out from the embroidered sheet and show how “cold” and “dumb” she is. The woman's body is cold because it is no longer alive. She is dumb not in terms of intelligence, but again because she can no longer carry an intelligent conversation, nor any conversation. Inexplicably, it seems that someone places a lamp near her so that she can be seen better by mourners. Finally, the speaker repeats the idea that "the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream," as said in the final lines of the first stanza. It is not made clear who this emperor is, nor what the domain of ice cream refers to.