Helen Vendler: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (2)

At the heart of many of Stevens's poems are harsh and unpalatable experiences revealed only gradually through his intense stylization. The famous poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," resisted explication for some decades, perhaps because no one took the trouble to deduce its implicit narrative from its stylized plot. (The Russian formalist distinction between "story" and "plot" is often useful for this and other Stevens poems.) The basic "story " of "The Emperor" is that of a person who goes to the house of a neighbor, a poor old woman, who has died; the person is to help "lay out" (arrange for decent viewing) the corpse in the bedroom, while other neighbors are sending over homegrown flowers, and yet others are preparing food, including ice cream, for the wake.

Stevens "plots" this story into two equal stanzas: one for the kitchen where the ice cream is being made, one for the bedroom where the corpse awaits decent covering. He "plots" it further by structuring the poem as a series of commands from an unknown master of ceremonies, directing--in a diction of extreme oddness--the neighbors in their funeral duties: "Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. /. . . / / Take from the dresser ... / ... that sheet /... / And spread it so as to cover her face." Both the symbolic kitchen stanza (life as concupiscence) and the symbolic bedroom stanza (death as final) end with the same third-order refrain echoed by the title: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Faced with life (however slovenly and appetitive) in the kitchen and death (with its protruding horny feet) on the bed, one must, however unwillingly, acquiesce in the reign of life.

We cannot know what personal events prompted this 1922 poem, apparently set in Key West (so the poet Elizabeth Bishop conjectured, who knew Key West, where Cubans worked at the machines in cigar factories, where blacks always had ice cream at funerals), but it derives resonance from Stevens's mother's death ten years earlier. What is certain is that it represents symbolically, with the Procrustean bed of its two rooms, the bitter moment of choosing life over death, at a time when life seems particularly lonely, self-serving, lustful, and sordid. Art is exposed as too scanty in its powers to cover up death; the embroidered sheet (a figure for the embellished page), if it is pulled up to cover the dead woman's face, reveals her "horny feet," which show "how cold she is, and dumb." In choosing to "let the lamp affix its beam," as in a morgue, and in acquiescing to the command, "Let be be finale of seem," Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Helen Vendler: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (2) Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Helen Vendler Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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