The Emperor of Ice Cream
The poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens is set in the West in the harmonium time, which was the early twentieth century. It was inspired by a social event that appears to present the paradox of life: families that seem to live in poverty can afford an expensive event such as a funeral and wenches (Kennedy and Gioia 57). The life event in this setting is a funeral. The poet uses the narrative approach to communicate his message. One cannot connect the poem’s title and content by reading it through for the first time. A reader has to be more critical, open minded, and keen in order to understand the deeper meaning of the poem. The poem allows a reader to interpret it differently, although there are specific themes that are evident. A theme can be identified through the funeral occasion, an ice cream man, and the people’s reactions to the event. Stevens’ poem narrates circumstances of death and life to explain opportunities experienced in two kinds of reality. Stevens reveals an expectation to feel the moment, the important relationship between the dead body and the Emperor, and the meaning of ice-cream.
There are personal events that require the public’s (other people’s) attendance. These are mainly ceremonial events. In such events, even though they might be solemn ones such as funerals, the hosts ensure that they do all to make things perfect. This is a funeral event, yet:
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers (lines 3-6)
This part of the poem attempts to explain that people can appreciate the moment despite what it characterizes. The hosts attempt to decorate the house of the deceased woman. They try to bring life in the house where death hovers. They, therefore, decorate the place, bring lively flowers, and keep the guests entertained with food (ice cream) in order to dilute already solemn mode in the environment. They attempt to bring in a positive aspect to the situation so that the mourners are able to focus more on the deceased’s life rather than her death.
The decoration may also bring out something that is common among many, if not all humans. It indicates how people are meticulous about impressing others despite what they are going through at the time. It indicates how people attempt to hide their real pain by substituting it with physical things. The place where the ceremony will be held should be decorated as though the people in the ceremony would judge the hosts for not preparing for the arrival of such important guests. The hosts appear to be more concerned about the people’s reactions to what surrounds them than about the situation that brought them to the place. Unfortunately, it is what happens in the real world.
The statement, “The only emperor is the emperor of Ice-cream” (lines 8, 16) appears twice in the poem. The emphasis on the term “emperor” is quite evident. In this poem, Stevens appears to convey an emperor as the head of the home (host), elderly men in a home setting, or the one suffering from the death of the woman. It appears that the narrator attempts to tell the reader that regardless of the way the man in the deceased’s life presents himself, he suffers a greater pain than he shows. Being a man who is afraid to show his feelings, which was typical of men at that time, he may do something wonderful on such a day as a cover-up of his innermost emotions. In this case, the host feeds people while keeping them entertained. The superficial reality is, therefore, presented to the reader, hence allowing the reader to reflect on his/her society. People are busy trying to keep others happy even when they are in pain. In most scenarios, they are also trying to deal with their own pains and losses.
Steven’s poem presents another issue evident in the reality. This is the fact that people have a tendency to overlook the current issues as they are too busy focusing on themselves and irrelevant things. This is evident from the second stanza of the poem:
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face (lines 9-12).
This part of the poem mainly presents the perception of women in the society even when they are dead. Evidently, woman’s appearance matters. The details of the cloth covering her and the lacking glass knobs in her home are evident to the visitors. Even when deceased, it would be better to see her feet, as opposed to her face, in case she portrays the wrong appearance.
The statement “Let be be finale of seem” is another one that allows the reader to make various interpretations. It appears towards the end of the first stanza of the poem. The repeated “be” in the statement indicates a reference to two subjects. This may be the emperor or the deceased woman. The presence of more than one interpretation of this statement is also indicated in Kia Penso’s analysis of Stevens works. According to Penso, this statement presents an emotional interpretation. Further, it presents the interrelationship in Stevens’ poems. However, even though the link is evident, “the individual poem makes a very vigorous claim--it demands that we learn to think in its idiom” (Modern American Poetry par.8).
In exploring this statement in the first stanza succinctly, Austin Allen prefers to explore the whole stanza. First, he explains that the first stanza dwells on the kitchen. The term “wenches” may refer to prostitutes in other scenarios or female servants as in this scenario. The “muscular one” is asked to whip the cream with gusto. The female servants, therefore, appear to flirt with the one whipping the cream as the boys bring flowers to decorate the area. At some point, the narrator states, “Let artifice and illusion give way to plain reality” (Allen par.18). It appears as though the narrator is trying to tell the reader that it all finalizes in death. The fantasies and illusions of people that are portrayed through writing are set forth by reality in time of death.
The poem, as constantly indicated, can be interpreted from a different angle. Stevens discusses the term “concupiscent”, which means desirous or lust (Allen par.7). This is a strange word to be used as an adjective of food. The narrator may have put this world in order to go deeper into the mood of the event, from the kitchen to the people waiting to be served the ice cream. This may clearly indicate how a life’s event that is supposed to have a singularized type of mood may be characterized by so many moods. Some of these emotions are unexpected in such a scenario. For example, one is not expected to desire or notice the masculinity of another when he/she should be mourning or consoling the deceased’s family.
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Nevertheless, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” continues to be the focal point. In order to understand the relationship between the words in such a statement, one needs to understand the words separately. The emperor is the subject. As indicated earlier, the term may be referring to the host (deceased’s husband), elderly man, or the deceased. The ice cream may refer to people’s daily lives. Ice cream is something that is used/eaten on a daily basis (Kennedy and Gioia 58). On another level, ice cream is a type of food that is eaten during various occasions. It is eaten when people are happy, when they are in love (romance/sensual meal), and it serves as comfort food too. People eat it when they are depressed, discouraged or low in spirit. It is as if the narrator is asking people to create a balance between mourning with the affected people and celebrating one’s life as part of reality.
Stevens’ poem portrays the realities of life and death. It is clear that even though death is a life event that people need to focus on, people should not forget about the reality. They should not forget that people interact and love and focus on things surrounding them (embroidered fantails) rather than the corpse/deceased. On the other hand, people should not focus too much on going on with life (future) and forget about the moment and the lessons that characterize it. Stevens presents a poem that is open to too many interpretations, which is both advantageous and disadvantageous. Stevens’ poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” was not easy to interpret while it is impossible to give it one precise meaning. Nevertheless, it is relevant to attempt and interpret the poem in accordance with the Stevens' intension. This will allow the reader to grasp the intended messages. Overall, it does not limit the reader, hence allowing the reader to be explorative.
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