The Emperor of Ice-Cream

by Wallace Stevens

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Themes

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Last Updated on October 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

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. Therefore, it is in our best interest the seize the day rather than try to control the passage of time.

We Cannot Escape Mortality

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. In contrast, young boys and girls are assisting with the funeral itself. These youthful figures are clearly unlike the old woman. However, the depiction of the woman also brings to light the idea of impact. Whenever anyone passes on, they leave behind their belongings, their creations, and their legacy. No matter what any of us has done—whether we change the world or embroider sheets (or both!)—we are all subject to mortality. Essentially, we are the same in death. It is what we do with our lives in the time that we have that sets us apart.

Life Is What Makes One Rich

The poem conveys the idea that life, not money, is what makes one rich. At the end of each stanza, the speaker says, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” In other words, the richest and most powerful person is the one who is alive and 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. The small moments that make us feel like “emperors” are important, regardless of whether or not we are living in luxury. The real luxury is time, and the poem calls its readers to enjoy each moment.

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