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The Emperor of Ice-Cream
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
by Wallace Stevens

The Emperor of Ice-Cream Theme of Versions of Reality

"Seems," madam? Nay, it is; I know not "seems."

Yes, this is a quote from Hamlet, but we know that Wallace Stevens was barking up a similar tree in "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." Yup—the conflict of "seeming" and "being" is a big one in this poem, with the speaker calling out: "Let be be finale of seem" (7). The speaker wants to put an end to all the cover-ups we so often hide behind, and are distracted by, to the point that the superficial nature of appearances (what the world "seems" like) eventually creates a separate (and very false) sense of reality. That's not to say that this superficial version of reality is not a strong influence, though. Even the dead woman, after she's already dead, must have her appearance covered by a sheet. But look at all the good that does her: she's still dead. Clearly, one version of reality (the reality of death) triumphs in the end, as appearances goes down for the count!

Questions About Versions of Reality

  1. How many different disguises can you spot in the poem? How do they relate to the title, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"?
  2. How is "seeming" relevant to the world today? What sorts of disguises do people wear today and why?
  3. Do you think that it's possible to live a life that's devoid of the distractions of appearance? Why or why not?
  4. In what ways is death treated as another kind of appearance in this poem? In what ways is it beyond the superficial realm of disguise?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Masks aren't just for Halloween in Stevens' "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" but are rather an indication of how we act like wimps who can't be real with one another.

Those pesky fantails over the dead woman's face seem to be a tad less useful than pennies on the eyes for the ferryman bringing her to the afterlife. The poem tells us that even the best of appearances will do nothing to stop the ultimate reality of death.

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