The Emperor of Ice-Cream
by Wallace Stevens
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
- We start with a command, but we're not quite sure who's giving the command. We know the speaker wants someone to roll a "big cigar," so we have reason to suspect that something important is happening.
- We may also have some symbolism going on with the image of the "big cigar." Cigars are usually smoked on special occasions so this may be a symbol for an accomplishment, celebration, or simply enjoying life.
- We also know that there are "rollers" of cigars, which means they are made nearby.
- (Biography note: We get our first hint that we're in Key West, where lots of people work in cigar factories. How do we get that hint? Well, Wallace Stevens spent a lot of time in Key West, Florida. He wrote about the place, too—just check out his "The Idea of Order at Key West."
- Now, Key West is a smorgasbord of different cultures, including but not limited to Cubans. Cigar factories are very common in the region and many Cuban immigrants still make them like they did in the old days: by hand. Also, it seems that ice-cream was known to be served at funerals! This may be weird for us, but it was certainly an influence for this poem, too.)
- Then we get that the roller is a "muscular one," which makes us think that he's had a lot of practice making cigars. Although, it's not like making cigars is the same as lifting weights. At the least, we can say that this "muscular one" is somebody who is active, who puts his body to work.
- He's got another job, now. The speaker tells the muscular cigar roller to do something else too: "bid him whip." Notice the assonance (repeated vowel sound) in these three words. The short I sound of "bid him whip" almost mimics the sharp, brusque, and repeated motions of the actions being requested (for more on things like assonance, check out the "Sound Check" section).
- We don't know what the muscular guy is supposed to "whip" because the line ends here, even though the idea is connected to the following line. We therefore have an example of enjambment, since we don't have any punctuation separating this line with the following one and the idea is still not complete.
- The suspense is killing us!
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
- Okay, so now we get the full idea: the muscular cigar rolling guy is being called to whip up some "concupiscent curds." Huh? What are those? Well, concupiscent really means to have sexual desire. Hmm. And curds? Well, those are just coagulated lumps of milk. Yum!
- Okay, so how can milky lumps have sexual desire? You know, that's a really good question. We think the title might be helpful here, though. What kind of milk product might arouse the most excitement? Ice cream! After all, I scream for it; you scream for it; heck, we all scream for it. So, at this point, it looks like this is just a fancier—way fancier—way of referring to ice cream.
- How about the way these lines sound on the tongue? "[K]itchen cups concupiscent curds" gives us four hard C sounds in a row. That can't be a coincidence (yet another hard C sound). This use of alliteration may simply be sonic playfulness for the sake of being playful, or there may be a bigger reason for it. We'll keep going through the poem, but feel free to click ahead to the "Sound Check" section for more details, if you want.
- Also notice that we're in a kitchen ("kitchen cups"), so we might at this point be in someone's house. Consider the significance of this, too. A home tends to be a casual environment (as opposed to, you know, a state dinner), so we begin to get a clearer sense of where we are in the poem. No fancy, stuffy, or "proper" shenanigans are going on in here.
- Still, there's a limit to informality. Rule of thumb: never call your girlfriend a "wench." Now that that's out of the way, let's consider why the speaker is using this word. Historically, "wench" has been used to describe young "women of the night," which is just a nicer way of calling these kinds of ladies prostitutes, servants, or a combination of both.
- Here, the word means the same thing, though we don't have any concrete details about these wenches. Maybe they're prostitutes, maybe they're not, but that's not really the point here. Rather, the speaker invites them to "dawdle in such dress." Again, the idea isn't complete yet, so we have more enjambment.
- But why "dawdle?" What comes to mind when you hear that word? Mom yelling at you for not getting ready for school quicker? Your teacher encouraging you to finish up your test and quit staring out the window? Again, the speaker may just be furthering the casual atmosphere of the poem's setting. Nothing is being rushed here.
- Alternatively, maybe the speaker is beginning to use words here that reference time and how we use our time. We either dawdle or rush to get things done. When we dawdle we also give the impression that we're not making the most of our time. Maybe that's part of the speaker's larger point? Let's read on…
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
- A-ha! "[D]awdle in such dress / as they are used to wear" is the full idea here. What does that mean? If you are used to dressing a certain way, that means that the clothes you typically wear reflect your style and personality. It's your "normal" wear. You're not trying to be someone you're not. It's the same idea here. "Wenches" are not typically dressed in evening gowns and fur coats. They don't have a lot of money, so they wear modest and cheap-looking clothing.
- The speaker is instructing them to wear what they're used to wearing and not change simply because an occasion calls for something different.
- Notice too that we have a lot of enjambment going on in this poem. Every line relates to those that precede and follow. It's all connected, in other words. As a result, the reads a bit more like a flowing conversation, rather than a series of declarations. The speaker is making some observation to us, his reader, but, even though he seems to be running the show, he seems interested in engaging our attention by pulling it along from the end of one line to the start of the next.
- While the wenches are wearing their normal dress, the boys are being told to bring flowers in "last month's newspapers." It seems like they don't have to be specially tied up with ribbons and bows. Any old wrapping will do.
- Once again, appearances are being pooh-poohed here. The speaker is more about what the people do than what it looks like when they do it.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
- Huh. Now this is confusing. Still, there aren't any typos here. There are really supposed to be two "be"s in this line. Why? Well, here's a thought: one is a noun and one is a verb. Think of it this way: that first "be" in the line is there as a shorter, fancier way of saying "being," the act of life. In other words, this line is saying "Let life (be-ing) be the end (finale) of superficial appearances (seem)."
- Remember the laid-back attitude about the dress of the "wenches" and the presentation of the flowers? It's clear that this speaker is not concerned with appearances. Like, at all. Here he really drives that point home. He's saying let's be real. Let's not seem to be anything. Let's be exactly what we are. Let's be true to our being.
- And then we get to the root of the poem's title: "The emperor of ice-cream." It's a silly-sounding line and it's supposed to be. When we think of emperors, we typically think of rich important men who rule their kingdoms with an iron fist. Here, the speaker takes that archetype and turns it on its head. Here the importance of this emperor's job is to oversee ice cream.
- Now, we think that this would be a great job, but we understand that the speaker is essentially poking fun at the emperors of the world by suggesting that their job is no more important than overseeing ice cream.
- At the same time, ice cream can be seen as so important that, yes, it needs an emperor to oversee it. We're beginning to get the impression that this poem is trying to realign our priorities just a bit. Ruling vast imperial domains? Out. Making sure we're all enjoying a nice scoop of Rocky Road? In!
- So by the end of this first stanza, we're starting to understand the speaker's vision a little more. The focus of this poem is to get us to reconsider the way we live our lives, and the value we place on appearances.
- Also very important is that this first stanza ends with a resounding couplet of two rhyming, separate sentences. (For more on this, take a look at the "Form and Meter" section.) The periods in these lines invite the reader to take their time and consider each line by itself. Once they do, it comes as no shock that both of these lines are the most powerful and relevant to the poem's main themes. So far, anyway…