Milton J. Bates: The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

That Stevens could write a pure poem without recourse to Symbolist metaphysics or exoticism is brilliantly demonstrated in a piece like "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." Here, the impending night of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Domination of Black" has descended, quenching not only the woman's life but also any possibility of protest. Instead, the poem affixes its relentless beam up[on the common, even repellent details of the woman's room and her corpse. In a voice that suggests the sideshow barker rather than the unctuous minister or funeral director, the speaker of the poem insists that the naturalistic "be" replace the religious or romantic "seem." He calls for a wake devoid of pomp and ceremony; the mourners (or are they celebrants?) are to wear their workaday clothes and one of them, the muscular cigar maker, will serve ice cream--a symbol not only of life's ephemeral pleasures but also, as Stevens told R.P. Blackmur, "of the materialism or realism proper to a refugee from the imagination."

Not that "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is an unimaginative poem. Though Stevens spoke of its "deliberately commonplace costume" when he chose it as his favorite in 1933, he also said that it seemed to him to contain something of the "essential gaudiness" of poetry. These remarks seems contradictory until one remembers that Stevens, in keeping with a fundamental precept of pure poetry, typically inverted the usual hierarchy of subject and style. Since poetry is the true subject of a pure poem, the ostensible subject is, relatively speaking, mere "costume." Such costume is not dispensable, however. "Poetry is like anything else," Stevens told Latimer; "it cannot be made suddenly to drop all its rags and stand out naked, fully disclosed." Consequently, though the "essential gaudiness" of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" lies in its expressive diction and oratorical flair, "The Emperor" does have clothes: the woman's wake. Because its costume is so prosaic--as compared, for example, with "Domination of Black"--the poem is a triumph of attitude over reference. Ostensibly an endorsement of "be," it testifies still more eloquently to the power of "seem." One is not surprised to learn that Stevens, when he tried to recall the inception of the poem years later, could remember the "state of mind" which gave rise to it but not the external occasion.

From Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Copyright © 1985 by the University of California Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Milton J. Bates: The Emperor of Ice-Cream" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Milton J. Bates Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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