The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens

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At first glance, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" can seem like a confusing poem. As a reader, you won't be alone in that initial reaction; however, like any good dessert (like ice-cream), the poem gets better as a reader dives into its layers.

As a starting point for a lot of poetry analysis, I usually recommend that students begin by looking at the more concrete and physical structures of a poem. This functions like a warm-up for the "deeper," more obscure analysis parts. The first thing to notice is that the poem is made up of two stanzas. Digging a little deeper, each stanza is made up of eight lines. While that might seem insignificant, keep in mind that there is no rule that says stanzas have to be the same length as each other. Stevens is making an intentional decision to keep them the same length.

As for strict rhyme, rhythm, and meter, this poem does not have it. The poem reads much more like a conversation. This is called free verse, and it occurs when a poet doesn't use regular rhyme or meter. Another reason that the poem reads so much like a conversation is because of the repeated usage of enjambment. This occurs when a line of poetry carries over into the next line to complete the thought without any kind of punctuation at the end of the line to make the reader pause. Despite the seeming lack of strict "poetry" forms, it would be remiss to not point out that the final two lines of each stanza form a couplet. Another somewhat common poetry structure that the poem makes use of is the refrain in the last line of each of the stanzas.

The mixture of free verse with refrains and a final rhyming couplet might be at odds with each other until you consider what the poem is trying to show/teach readers. The poem is taking place at a funeral or a wake. It's a very formal and serious tradition, but it is also somewhat of a celebration of someone's life. The poem's free aspects seem to steer readers to the notion that it's okay to have a little fun in life and at these kind of events; however, the poet also doesn't forget the formality of them either.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is a short but intensely compacted poem of sixteen lines, divided into two stanzas. The title reflects the irony and complexity of the poem as a whole, perhaps suggesting that humans are no more resistant to death than ice cream is to the sun. The poem is filled with the visual imagery, wordplay, humor, and thematic tension common to Wallace Stevens’s poetry.

The poem is written in the third person, seemingly by someone who is assembling a group of people both to create and to attend a wake (it is common in some cultures to have a celebration of the life of the person who has died, with food and drink, after a time of mourning) for a poor woman. In stanza 1 there is a call for a person muscular enough to whip up desserts by hand; evidently there is not enough money for an electric mixer, let alone someone who would be paid to cater the food. The desserts will have to be served in kitchen cups; there is no fine china or crystal. The common people who will attend will come in their everyday clothes, rather than formal attire; the flowers will be brought in last month’s newspapers, rather than in vases, or as wreaths or other floral arrangements. All these details suggest that there is nothing fancy or special about death and its aftermath; indeed, in this poem, death is so ordinary as to be shocking and unusual rather than trite, because Stevens avoids the euphemisms and denials that often accompany the details and descriptions of death.

Stanza 2 continues with the preparations, except that now someone is being asked to take a sheet from the top of a cheap and broken dresser to cover the deceased person’s face, even if that means that her ugly feet protrude. Instead of soft lights or candlelight, the lamp should be turned to glare on her body, to show that she is now cold and silent in death. Stevens is insisting that one must look directly at death, in all its...

(The entire section is 1,277 words.)