The Emperor of Ice-Cream

by Wallace Stevens

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Last Updated on October 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

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

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As a starting point for analysis, it is helpful to begin by looking at the more concrete and physical structures of a poem. This functions like a warm-up for the "deeper," more obscure analytical work. 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.

The first 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 Since newspapers are things that are good and accurate for only a short time, last month's would be out-of-date this month.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.

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The second stanza shifts gears abruptly to describe the old woman’s death. In a stark contrast to the merry-sounding aspects of the first stanza, the second stanza leads readers through what appears to be a wake or funeral service of sorts. Here is a woman who has “horny” feet, and lies “cold” and “dumb” in her coffin. This word choice seems to iterate that we will all meet the same fate, ice cream or young boys alike. She is, importantly, covered by a sheet that she embroidered. Her life has ended, yet she left a legacy. This impact remains. Even though our human lives are finite, we can make meaning with the time we have. 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.

As for strict rhyme, rhythm, and meter, this poem does not adhere to a particular structure. The poem reads much more like a conversation as a result of its free verse. Another reason that the poem reads so much like a conversation is because of the repeated usage of enjambment, or 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 we consider what the poem is trying to show or 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 kinds of events; however, the poet also doesn't forget the formality of them either.

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