The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens

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Themes

Enjoying the moment

In the poem, ice cream is used as a symbol for life. This symbol helps to illuminate the theme: We have to enjoy the here and now, so to speak, because life, like ice cream, will not last long. If one does not eat ice cream right away, it melts and becomes a lot less fun—or even impossible—to eat. If one does not make the most of one's life during the present, one might lose the opportunity to do so. Life will eventually come to an end, and it will likely be sooner than we think, so we must enjoy what we can while we can (we must, figuratively, eat the ice cream). Most things in life, things mentioned in the poem—"concupiscen[ce]" and youth and flowers and newspapers and ice cream—fade or melt or lose their relevance quickly, and the same can be said of life itself.

We cannot escape mortality

Likewise, the poem points to the idea that we cannot escape mortality. The dead woman in the second stanza embroidered birds, called "fantails," on her sheet once—birds are often associated with life and freedom and independence—but now she has "horny feet" that are calloused and cold. Her beautiful sheet is used to cover her face now. She is "dumb," mute, and can only offer a warning to seize the day with the existence of her body, cold and quiet.

Life is what makes one rich

Finally, the poem conveys the idea that life is what makes one rich. "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream," the speaker says at the end of each stanza. In other words, the richest and most powerful person is the one who is alive, who eats the ice cream (figuratively and perhaps even literally). An emperor is someone who is powerful and wealthy, and the symbol of ice cream implies that the person who wields the most power and wealth in life is the one who IS alive. It is life and its enjoyment in the moment that makes us rich, not money or any other material goods.

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Two lines in Stevens’s poem have often caused readers to wonder in puzzlement at what they might mean. The first is the title itself, “the emperor of ice-cream,” a phrase which is repeated in the last lines of both the first and second stanzas. Indeed, as part of the closing lines of each stanza, its importance is underscored and re-emphasized: In these lines, the emperor of ice-cream is in fact the only emperor. In order to understand this image and its symbolic aspects as fully as possible, one need also understand its corollary, the line which precedes it in the first stanza: “Let be be finale of seem.”

Emily Dickinson, in “I could not see to see,” the last line of her well-known poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” (poem 465), makes a pun out of a simple verb. Since her eyes cannot see, she cannot understand. Just as Dickinson uses “see” on two quite different levels, the literal and the figurative, Stevens does here with “be.”

When Stevens writes “Let be be finale of seem,” he is using the first “be” as a noun (being) and the second as a verb. His line might be translated as “let being be the end of appearance,” or—to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in his introduction to Mother Night (1961)—be careful who you pretend to be, because who you pretend to be is who you are. Stevens is suggesting that there is, or at least ought to be, a close connection between one’s actions and who one is; the way one is in one’s existence in the world should reflect one’s inner essences (or perhaps, at another level, it already does, whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not). In one of his letters,...

(The entire section is 964 words.)