The Emperor of Ice-Cream

by Wallace Stevens
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Last Updated on October 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

"The Emperor of Ice-Cream" may puzzle readers until they decipher the clues about the poem's surface and underlying meanings. There are several important lines or phrases that help clarify the poem's content. 

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Bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds

A muscular man is called to perform the action of making the ice cream. The word concupiscent, which means "lustful," seems to be an odd choice to describe the frozen treat. As used here, it is better understood as decadent, so "concupiscent curds" is a synonym for ice cream. A strong person is needed to turn the crank of the homemade ice cream freezer.

Let the boys bring flowers in last month's newspapers

At this point in the poem, readers aren't sure what occasion is being celebrated, but the mention of "wenches" and boys with flowers suggests some type of celebration, which the ice cream has also implied. The old newspapers suggest either that the occasion isn't worthy of a better offering or that the "boys" are not very wealthy. It is also an important reminder of the passage of time, an idea central to the poem.

Take from the dresser . . . that sheet . . . and spread it so as to cover her face

These are the lines that clarify the occasion as a wake or funeral. This line indicates that the celebration is being held in the woman's home and involves people, likely family members and friends. This procedure doesn't seem to be overseen by a mortician or funeral parlor. Again, this suggests the humble financial circumstances, but also the time period and customs of the day. A viewing before burial was often held in the deceased person's home and coordinated by their relatives and friends.

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb

This line describes the dead body using striking sensory imagery.

Let the lamp affix its beam

This is another striking use of imagery. The body will be displayed under a lamp so those who attend the wake can view the person one final time.

Let be be finale of seem

This is certainly one of the most interesting lines of the poem. Knowing the poem speaks of death and life, one can propose it means something like this: "Let the actions of the living [be] provide the final performance of a life that was really only an illusion anyway [seem]."

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream

This repeated line is the source of the poem's title. The celebratory connotation of ice cream might imply that as long as we are still alive, we should enjoy ourselves. Taken by itself, the final line could be interpreted as a call to hedonism—to give oneself to sensual pleasures. But the somber tone of the poem and its subject matter of death temper that interpretation and cause the reader to ponder the deeper meanings of existence. Perhaps we ought to seize our personal empires of ice cream while we are able.

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