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The Emperor of Ice-Cream

The Emperor of Ice-Cream


by Wallace Stevens

Stanza 2 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 9-10

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

  • Here in the second stanza we get our first glimpse at the former life of the dead woman. The language is a little ambiguous, but never forget, we're dealing with poetry here. We're supposed to question and analyze things in our own way.
  • To do that, let's take these lines bit by bit. As far as setting goes, we've moved from the kitchen to a bedroom, apparently (since bedrooms are usually where the dressers are kept). 
  • What kind of dresser is it? Well, an obscure definition of "deal" is cheap wood of some kind. The thing is also missing three of its knobs, so we're not looking at anything from an overpriced furniture shop. This tells us something about the woman. She didn't make a lot of money and she didn't spend a lot of money. 
  • Also, pay attention to our speaker. He/she is giving us more commands. Pretty bossy, no? At this point we can make some determinations about our speaker, who seems to be orchestrating these events through his (we're assuming it's a he) commands. In that way, it's as though the speaker is in control, and in the know.
  • Notice too the difference in form compared to the first stanza. We'll talk more about this in the "Form and Meter" section, but for now compare the use of a comma in the very first line of the poem and the use of a period in this first line of the second stanza. Why is Stevens not keeping with a specific form?
  • While we ponder that, the speaker is busy giving us orders again. We have to "Take […] that sheet." Take it where? Tell us!
  • Wait—first we have to get to the next line. Once again, we're left hanging on an enjambment.

Lines 11-12

On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.

  • So, now that we get the full picture, the idea here is "that sheet / On which she embroidered fantails once." Great. What's a fantail? Here it suggests a decorative design that resembles a fancy peacock or other bird whose tail looks like a pretty fan, like this.
  • So, we got that straight, but who is "she," other than somebody who liked to embroider (sew pretty decorative pieces)?
  • Hang on a tick. Before we do more sleuthing, let's consider some more symbolism going on. What comes to mind when you think of a bird with a fantail, like a peacock? A beautiful bird? Useless bird? (Sorry peacocks, we mean no offense.) Maybe a bird that we recognize simply because of its appearance?
  • Hmm. It seems that we have more evidence to support the poem's focus on appearances.
  • So, what's the poem trying to tell us about appearances here? Well, it's clear that all these fancy patterns were embroidered "once," but apparently no longer.
  • So, they've gone by the wayside, but why? Let's look closer.
  • The next line tells us (more orders—so bossy!) to take that sheet and spread it over the woman's face. Aha. Since that's the kind of thing that is typically done to dead bodies, we can assume that this woman, who once sewed these pretty designs, is now dead. Sad.
  • Of course, this act is another kind of attention to appearances. Dead folks probably don't mind whether their face is showing or not. It's usually something the living do to shut out the appearance of death isn't it? 
  • So, let's back up a second and find ourselves. Here we are at a wake (where a celebration of the dead person is held in the presence of their body). People are eating ice cream and smoking cigars. In other words, it looks like we have a pretty obvious contrast of life and death occurring at the same time.

Lines 13-14

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

  • Here we get a glimpse of the woman's actual corpse, and it's not pretty.
  • First off, we can't ignore the use of the word "horny." It's probably not what you think, though (we know you too well, Shmoopers). Have you even seen anyone's feet who spent a lot of time walking or standing, especially in ill-fitting shoes? Usually, that makes for a bunch of bunions and calluses. The feet get tough and lumpy from all that physical stress, and start to resemble horns. 
  • So, this woman's feet (as well as her cheap, broken dresser) speak to a difficult life of physical labor.
  • That's sad, but it's in our face. They "protrude," or stick out. The sheet covers part of her, but those feet are still in our view. We can't ignore them.
  • Still, they have a point, the speaker tells us (he seems to really have a lot of insight as he runs this show): "To show how cold she is, and dumb." 
  • Of course, a corpse would be cold (no warm blood pumping through it) and dumb (using the old-fashioned definition meaning mute, silent).
  • In other words, then, the feet of this poor, dead woman are reminders to us: death is real, we can't escape it, and it happens to us all.
  • Now, don't you feel better? 
  • No? Well, how about this? Notice how this woman reminds us of death through the way she looks. In keeping with our poem's focus, it is specifically her appearance that is the final reminder of the inevitability and finality of death. It's as though, the speaker is telling us, the only kind of appearance that really matters is the kind that is really, undoubtedly true. Tough as it is to deal with, death is true. The rest of that stuff (like fantails on a sheet) is just meaningless distraction. 
  • Boy, now we're depressed! Let's see if the speaker can cheer us up at all…

Lines 15-16

Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

  • So, we wrap up the poem in the same way the first stanza wraps up: with a rhyming couplet of two separate sentences. Let's take these lines one at a time. 
  • Symbol alert! The speaker is now commanding that a lamp be lit. More specifically, he wants the lamp to "affix its beam." In other words, he wants the light to shine on a very specific target ("affix" means to… fix, but fix to what?). 
  • What might this target be? Well, this where symbolism comes in. Ever had anybody "shed some light" on an issue for you? If so, you know that this is figurative language that means to explain or enlighten someone. So, symbolically, the speaker is calling for some kind of enlightenment to take place here.
  • What should we realize, O great speaker? 
  • "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Right, got it. Only, you said that already, back in line 8. So, why might the speaker be repeating it? Has anything changed by the end of the poem when we think of an "emperor of ice-cream"?
  • In both cases, the speaker is reminding us to take enjoyment where we can from life. In this instance, we've just encountered a corpse, which is a pretty vivid reminder that (to use a cliché) time flies. 
  • So, this reminder seems to be the main point that the speaker is driving home, the idea that he wants that lamp to symbolically illuminate for the reader. 
  • To sum up, all of our disguises, anxieties, empires, missed opportunities are distractions from the big picture. What really matters is how we enjoy life and live each day to the fullest. Emperor, wench, or dead woman, no one can overcome the true "finale" of life (i.e., death).

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