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...

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