EXPLANATION OF: "THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM"
Wallace Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is a poem about pleasure, or rather how different modes of pleasure can compensate for human pain. The poem is striking and memorable because of its effective use of juxtaposition. On the one hand, we have particularly vivid images of sensuality and beauty (ice-cream, curds, flowers, fantails). On the other hand, we are exposed to suggestions of deprivation and ugliness (last month's newspapers, broken dresser, horny feet). The main idea is that even in the most fatal or depressing circumstances, like a funeral or a wake, we should remain aware of our materiality and therefore also mortality: nothing can be more ordinary than life and death combined together in the same room, or, for that matter, in the same poem. In "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" Stevens articulates a resourceful epicureanism that springs from this realization.
The dominating figure in stanzas 1 and 2 is variously described as "the roller of big cigars" (1), "the masculine one" (2), and "the emperor of ice-cream" (lines 8 and 16). He is not a real but an imaginary figure, some kind of fictional cook or food-producer in charge of our different gradations of tastes and desires. In contrast, the "wenches" that dawdle in their customary rather than ceremonial dresses (4-5) are as real as they can get. No special dress is required for the occasion and even commemorative flowers can be wrapped in old newspapers. Appearance does not have to take precedence over actual reality—"Let be be finale of seem" (7)—since the person in question is dead and therefore she is irrevocably distanced from the rest of the guests who have come to pay her their respects.
Stevens insists on preserving the ordinary reality in stanza 2. The cheap dresser ("deal" is a cheap kind of wood) is almost no longer functional, and the embroidered fantails are most appropriate for decorating their former owner's cold and dumb body. The lamp, with its ability to expose all appearances and all masks, should "affix its beam" (15) on the whole ceremony in order to illuminate the dead and the living and delineate their difference. The refrain "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream" simply emphasizes the material, physical, or sensual fact of human experience; the only authority we should have is the one that makes us feel like real people living in a real world and finding pleasure in this feeling.
Stevens's sensuous if slightly melancholy poem is central to his view of poetry as a manifestation of relationships we create between ourselves and reality. Stevens believed that the imagination should resist pressures of reality and that poetry should resist our intelligence almost successfully. The poet reveled in exploring the transitional moment, the not-quite-here and the not-yet-gone. A poem, according to Stevens, is a form of intimation in which questioning matters more than understanding; accordingly, many of his poems contain gaudy vocabulary and outlandish diction. But "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is easier to understand than it seems at a first glance. It functions as a series of suggestions and implications and its only lesson is that we should duly accept the world of fact with all of the rewards and disappointments it has to offer.