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The Emperor of Ice-Cream -- Wallace Stevens

(Poem #180) The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
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.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

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.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
-- Wallace Stevens
"A poem need not have a meaning and, like most things in nature, often
does not have."
     - Wallace Stevens, from Opus Posthumous, "Adagia" (1959)

A line like that should absolve me of all critical responsiblities :-)

Actually, though, this poem (one of Stevens' most famous) is hardly
nonsensical. Rather, it describes (with great clarity, I might add) a
funeral scene, while commenting on the very human fallibilities of those
attending the wake.

Not much more to say, I'm afraid; I'll leave it to you to come up with
your own interpretations of each line (especially the most controversial
of them all, 'let be be finale of seem'). Good luck :-).



Lots and lots of lovely links for you today.

A good introductory essay to the meaning of this poem can be found at
[broken link]
while a more in-depth analysis lurks at
[broken link]

[broken link] Emperor of Ice Cream
is part of a larger article on Stevens and Theodore Roethke.

And of course there's the Minstrels biography at poem #154

Read all our prevous poems at

62 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Nancy Catmull said...

"Let be be finale of seem" speaks to me of resolve, when in a brief moment a blurred vision focuses into clarity and all questions become answered, perhaps with a deep sigh, the sort which makes one's shoulders rise up and then fall.

Jerry Jewell said...

Bodies used to be prepared for funeral at the homes of the deceased. The
mortician came to the house. The roller of big cigars is the mortician
who wrapped the body. They probably wanted the muscular mortician
because the body was large.

The curds were the morticians white makeup which came in powder form and
had to be mixed.

The lamp was the mortician's portable lamp which had an adjustable beam
which was shown on the deceased's face. It often had a pleasant rose
tint to it which looked good against the white makeup.

This is a not only a mundane funeral, but the writer encourages everyone
to go on with life - enjoy your ice cream because only the pleasures of
life are really important.

Finally (sic) " let be be finale of seem" - Even though this is a seemly
(cheap, gaudy or lowly) funeral, just let it be. Don't fret over the
tackiness of this woman's finale.

Hope this helps someone understand the poem.

Jerry Jewell

claude caspar said...

"Let be…" is a stunning gloss on Hamlet. It echoes throughout the text, though most only think of "To be or not…" Hamlet never let's Be{ing] be- he tries to get to the bottom of everything. But, if one can let Seems be, and accept the "given" as and end in itself… Stevens observes that if you taste Life like we all know Ice-cream is best tasted (the first lick is always most exquisite), without being cloyed, we can master experience, Life & Death. Notice that dead news wraps dying flowers; compare with the dying surrounding a grave. Why Death is the mother of beauty…

VnVJC37 said...

An "emperor" refers to an all-powerful ruler who is revered and often feared
by his subjects, and whose power often is seen as a divine right. By
contrasting this to ice cream--a sweet but frivolous and empty dessert--I believe
Stevens is telling us that no matter what we accomplish in life, and no matter how
respected we become, in the end we all become the dead woman, "cold" and
"dumb," when death comes for us. Stevens also tells us that the woman was a
seamstress, that her way to find dignity in a meaningless and godless universe was to
make fantails. So in a sense, the woman is the protaginist of the poem, much
like the old man in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." I can spend pages
upon pages with the comparison, but I'll keep this mercifully short.

MrWhite351 said...

I feel this poem has a lot to do with sensual pleasures of the body chiefly
ruling people. I think the emperor is a metaphore for one who brings pleasure
into our lives. Concupiscence, big muscles, ice cream, most of the images in
the poem are totally carnal in nature. The emperor coould also be a diversion
from the misery of the funeral that is taking place.
Maybe someone could add on her eso I don't feel completely foolish.

Mitchell Lawrence Henderson said...

This poem has haunted me since my Lit professor in Denver first showed
it to me when I was 18. To this day it sticks with me; I don't think
it's possible to ever fully explain its meaning, despite its clear
vision into a reality I maybe can't accept. I still struggle with it.

Bless you for posting it, "ice cream poem" is all it took on google to
bring back a flood of memories over the past decade.

Paul said...

although this is probably very very outdated, i think of the last line
,repeated tice in th poem Emperor of Ice Cream as meaning this:
Emperor: ruler
Ice cream: happiness, pleasure
so it works: The only ruler is the ruler of pleasure
i believe he is deriding people in power, saying that they do not have real
power, that the only person who has real power is the one who controls
pleasure and happiness. To me, the Emperor of Ice Cream is Ice Cream itself.

Splat said...

I read this poem in Steven King's "Salem's Lot" when I was 16. No internet access at the time, so I discussed it with my English teacher. We thought that the poor dead woman was a prostitute (concupiscent curds) (horny feet), that the coldness referred not only to her body temperature, but also to her heart in life. The three seemed relevant to my teacher, who, being a catholic, immediately thought of the holy trinity. And the lack of three glass knobs (eyes) reflected the absence of God in her life. The roller of big cigars, would then be the pimp, the wenches, her co-workers, and the boys, her customers. The dresser of deal is fate. The fantails a representation of the peace she found in death. The lamp beam was God's judgement. Her face is covered to hide her shame.

That's the way we saw it. I doubt that it was accurate, but we all see things our own way.

Keel Hugh N Mr TAMC said...

The "emperor of Ice Cream" is death.
The "dresser of deal" is life which is broken and worn with use and
The sheet represents the lies that we tell ourselves to cover our
The "finale of seem" is our perceptions and myths that get us through
the day, contrasted to the lamp and its' beam which is cold reality.

Hugh N. Keel
C, Patient & Business Services
Tripler Army Medical Center

macmend said...

actually i think the emperor of ice cream was a chain of stores in
Wallace Stevens day, however I think this poem says that in death
there is nothing seeming, it is natural and makes us all equal.
Being speaks equally to not being. In the second verse he describes
the sacredness of the ordinary and echoes much of the titles of Levi-
Strauss...The sacrd and profane, The Raw and the cooked, from honey
to ashes. Let the Choir sing out its tune, The only God is the God
emperor of Dune.


Seth Donut said...

"Let be" from "Let be be finale of seem" sets a subjunctive mood. To "seem"
is to appear like, as if to imply something that isn't real, like a dream.
That one line can be interpreted as letting reality be the end of illusion.
It's a throw back to Hamlet, in the line "we are made of worms" which says
that death is the great leveller of everything. It's best not to judge
others like you are superior, because in the end death gets us all. The
reality of everything is that people die, and no matter how taboo and
profane the subject of the death of a prostitute is, it's still something
that everyone goes through, because everyone dies all the same.


Hello. Thanks for being there. I don't get to 'talk' Stevens very often, Stevens' most complex poetry of which "Emperor" is one, demands a full hermeneutic analysis. On the surface the poem is ostensibly about a funeral and the inevitability of death. But Stevens warns us against "surface particulars as shadows amoung the poem's diclosures." It's at the symbolic level that Stevens unpacks his aesthetic concerns and here many of Stevens interpreters have been sound if not thorough. Here the poem is ostensbly about the death of Romanticism and the agon of the modern poet -- how to exist a diminshed thing, What is the modern poet? Tough guy or soda jerk? A virile purveyor or server of sweet confection? I can't explicate the whole of this poem here but it should be noted that the 'death' is double tropped in particularly Stevensian fashion. With horney feet you have Romanticism pulled up by the roots and with the head or more importantly the hair covered up you have
ihe impossibility of mining any-more the Romantic tropes. Barbering for Stevens, right from "Commedienne" is poetry making and hair -- what grows out of the head -- trope of trope, to be coiffed. . . as in
"Monocle." The girs in what they will wear and the boys with last weeks newspapers are the fancies of fop and this might be a slur directed at Eliot and Pound who used traditional form and looked 'back' to the Rennaissance for models. I'm running through this as fast as I can. But it's at the anagogic level where Stevens unpacks his personal and religios concerns that this poem slays. It's lentrecchia, I believe, who muses that the breakup of Stevens marriage might have resulted from his decision to publish poetry supposedly written for his wife. "Emperor" seems to say as much and more. Playing with the roots of the title, you come up with, amoung other things, Commander of confections, or Emperor of cold curds -- breasts. It might only be a local fact but there was a time here in Connecticut when ice cream and Bordens was near synonomous and oy course the logo of Bordens was Elsie and that is a Moll lying on the table. His wife then has become as a plank to him
-- dresser of deal -- and what glittered is gone, the cardinal points of the cojugal bed. And Stevens seems to have liked his wife in bed -- sheet -- where she embroifdered fantails, the word calling up peacock but at the roots of fan mean inspiration as well as being cognate with vatis or poet. The more that I would add to Lentrecchia comes from a suspicion that Stevens saved the word concupiscence from Wyatts interpretation of the Psalms, Rulers may see in a mirror clear/ The bitter fruit of false concupiscence. I suspect he knew Wyatt because I suspect firefangled came from new fangled, a Wyatt coinage if I remember correctly. So who is this commander of his own confction but emperor of the cold beast of his marriage. It kills me when people say things like their children love this poem. It's bitter, it's sad, it slays the lover of Stevens.

Craig Nielsen said...

I love this poem and agree with one person’s comment on this page about
“death as the great leveler.” Whereas in life you can have emperors and
subjects, in death you cannot; therefore the line “the only emperor is
the emperor of ice cream” means that people can only have fleeting power
that will melt away like ice cream. At the same time, I believe that the
emperor of ice cream stands for death itself, because death is cold,
creates that which is cold, and ultimately rules us all. The imagery in
the poem is both beautiful, bringing forth relaxing visions of physical
life (e.g., flowers and idle, comfortably dressed wenches), and stark,
showing the futility of romanticizing the physical reality of death,
which is ugly and meaningless.

Julian Close said...

Some contrasting interpretations: The poem apparently takes place in Key
West, where the manufacture of cigars was a huge part of the economy and
where, according to Elizabeth Bishop, there was always ice-cream served at
black funerals. The roller of big cigars is a roller of big cigars. He whips
curds as part of the process of making ice-cream. To let be be finale of
seem is to recognize not the common assumption that things are not what they
seem, but the far more shocking truth that they are. The speaker describes
first the living - the ice-cream maker, wenches, flowers, and old newspapers
- all common things, but things that *are*. He then describes the dead
woman, and, it seems a fresh realization. Looking at the dead woman, he sees
what is, but is struck by what he sees not, (*the nothing that is*, from
"The Snowman") including the soul, God, and salvation. He will return to the
living now, but see them differently. Before his realization, they were
incidental; now, they are everything. The speaker has shed not only a
comforting illusion, but also a cerebral haze that obscured his vision
of *things
as they are *(from The Man with the Blue Guitar). Now, the speaker,
perceiving nothing beyond the material world, and will endeavor to see it
clearly for the first time, letting the lamp affix its beam. Has he awakened
to world of greater awareness or merely lost faith and plunged into
nihilism? I don't doubt that Stevens himself would have agreed more with the
former, but the poem certainly leaves the question open.

David Dodge said...

Do you have a blue guitar?
Do you play things as they are?
Or are things changed on your blue guitar?

Let be be finale of seem:
Those concupiscent curds
Are beyond being.

I with Peter Quince at the clavier:
Susanna in her bath of green,
Tell me, how does your poem mean?

The river is flowing:
The blackbird must be flying,
I am but a thin man of Haddam,
In a glass hearse trusting in
The forbidden curse

And yet I have a mind of winter:
I regard the snow
I regard the cold cold snow.

Heath Hardman said...

I thought the expression "emperor of ice cream" illustrated that even those
with great power or wealth only posses it fleetingly. Ice cream is great
but you can't have it forever for it will melt. It is fleeting like life.
Another way to say this might be: Even the mightiest are only so for a
moment. It puts things into perspective. Rich or poor, powerful or
powerless it doesn't last forever. We are all the same when we are dead.

Heath Hardman

Marycruz Corrales said...

A cigar in not always a cigar. I don't want to be a perverted, but I
don't see a death (literally speaking) in this poem at all. Maybe, the
only way of relating "death" to what I see in this poem can be found
in most of Shakespeare's work: the punk of death as a sexual
encounter. Making love is (if there's a happy ending) like dying for
an instant. I see the big cigar as an erection being manually
elaborated (meaning by hand) very muscular (no explanation). "Curds",
I won't elaborate--just use your imagination--it could be cheese. A
newspaper is a wonderful cover of any undesired bulky and the finale
of semen's--sorry, I meant to say "seems" most have been to a great
finale for the emperor of ice cream, I guess. Do you like it in a
cone? What about "horny feet", uhmm... little riding hood, a French
feminist said is a clitoris. One way that area of a female body could
be cold is iced, not dead precisely, but what about ice-creamed. No
need to cover your face with a sheet in literature interpretation. To
be or not to be a literary analyst is related to not being ashamed of
being. Again, a poem can be read any way we want to. Wallace Stevens
learned his Shakespeare very well. He is sarcastic to the end, as for
us to drop dead looking for meaning. Who in the right mind would dear
to tell the emperor that he is naked? Only an innocent childish mind:
the literary mind.


mar y cruz

PS: We can still be Puritans if we want to—or hypocrites, which ever
is easier, but we must make use of interpretation skills when reading.
If we are going to see death only in this poem, at least comment a bit
about the sensuality the poeem suggests.

ratu said...

nice poem!! :)

putra said...

thanks for share

shitta said...

thanks for the info.
i like it so much.

Anonymous said...

thanks for info, but remember that everyone has it's own meaning of the things!


teeshirt lost said...

Great quiote from Wallace Steven

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David Plumb said...

This is the translation

Let the man who wants sex
jerk off in kitchen cups
Let the whores dawdle in the their usual wear
Let eh men bring flowers in last week's newspapers
(the person is gone)
Let it be what it seems to be
The only king here is sex

Take from the cheap wood dresser
the sheet she embroidered fantails (beauty)
and cover her face
if only her horny feet protrude it is
to show how cold old (not sexual and dumb (dead)
Let eh light fix the dream
The only kind is sexual

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