The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens

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Summary

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 are hanging around in their dresses while young boys bring flowers wrapped in old newspapers. The last two lines of the first stanza are tough; "Let be be finale of seem" could refer to the end of appearances, or things that "seem" rather than things that are.

The stanza as a whole seems to focus on things that are short-lived: ice cream (which must be enjoyed quickly or it melts), sexual desire (through the use of the word concupiscent), youth (the "wenches" and "boys"), flowers (which die quickly once picked), even "last month's newspapers" since newspapers are things that are good and accurate for only a short time, and last month's would be out-of-date this month. Thus, when the speaker says that the "only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream," he could mean that the richest person is the one who lives in the now, who understands that the present (and its desire and youthfulness and beauty and good things) is all we really have.

The second stanza seems to focus on a body's preparation for burial. There is a "dresser of deal," which likely refers to a cheap coffin, a "sheet" that the dead woman once embroidered with birds, and someone "spread[s] it so as to cover her face." Her "horny feet" (they must be calloused) might stick out and show "how cold she is"; the woman's body is cold because it is no longer alive. Perhaps 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 if to remind us that this will be the future for us all at some point, and so the way to make ourselves rich is to revel in the now: to enjoy the flowers and the ice cream today, so to speak, because these beauties will not last.

Summary

(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...

(The entire section is 712 words.)