Study Guide

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

By Wallace Stevens

The Emperor of Ice-Cream Introduction

Ice cream is so tasty and wonderful, there should be an emperor of it, right? This is sort of what Wallace Stevens is getting at in his poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," first published in 1923. Okay, maybe he's not suggesting that we all elect some guy/gal to oversee all ice cream production in the world, but he is suggesting that we take a moment to appreciate all of the delicious and fun things that life has to offer without worrying about all of the technical stuff. The technical and serious stuff, according to Stevens, is often silly and not worth fussing over. Hence, we get a title like, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream."

The interesting thing about this poem is that all of the delightful language we get occurs during a funeral. Weird? Maybe not. A wise person once said, "You're dead a long time." Those may be depressing words, but the thought is something that we think Stevens would be on board with. Why fret about the fleeting, superficial conditions of existence? We should take a moment to appreciate things for what they are rather than what they seem. In other words, dig the moment and don't fret about appearances too much, because in the end we'll all end up at a funeral, with or without the ice cream.

Now, if you're confused about whether to be cheered up by this thought, depressed, or a bit of both, don't worry. You're not alone. In fact, as a poet, Stevens' first impression on readers is often one of… confusion. Still, like a quadruple-layer sundae, his poetry—and "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" in particular—gets more rewarding the deeper you plunge. Published in his first collection of poetry, Harmonium, which came out in 1923, Stevens was already 44 by the time he first stepped onto the literary stage. For the next thirty years of his life, and in all the decades since, he's cast a huge shadow in American poetry, renowned as one of the most ingenious and complex artists ever to dash off a line of verse. So, enjoy one of his signature treats here. It's well worth any kind of ice cream headache it gives you along the way.

What is The Emperor of Ice-Cream About and Why Should I Care?

Why so serious?

Bet we just might be able to find some interesting crossroads between the Joker and Wallace Stevens. Let's start with one idea. The Joker liked to talk a lot about chaos and how we try to do the right thing, even when we may naturally feel like doing the wrong thing. He's kind of suggesting that we act like hypocrites at times (saying one thing and doing the opposite).

Well, Stevens thought along similar lines. "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is very much about this problem of "seeming" and "being." Stevens thought we spend way too much time worrying about appearances and what others might think of us, rather than just allowing ourselves to be, well, ourselves. (By the way, this isn't a new idea. Stevens and the Joker for that matter are getting at something that Shakespeare was writing about a few hundred years ago. If you don't believe us, just check out Hamlet.)

We're guessing that this message is probably connecting with you on some level. Really, if you've ever combed your hair in the mirror, you've done so with the thought about how your appearance will be received by others. And, really, it goes a lot further than that, doesn't it? Clothes, cars, jobs, colleges, friends—there are countless ways to "seem" in our modern society, and the majority of them are, frankly, exhausting. You know what, though? At the end of the day (and by day, we mean, you know, life), none of that stuff really matters.

What does matter, you might ask? Well, how about ice cream? Stevens thinks so anyway. The main point of this poem seems to be that we need to start living more in the here and now. After all, one day we'll all end up like the dead woman at the funeral, with our feet sticking out of the sheets. The question is, how would you like to spend all the time you have between now and then? Worrying about appearances, or indulging your sweet tooth? See? We knew you and Stevens would hit it off.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream Resources

Websites

Everything Wallace Stevens
For all of you wanting just a good, clear, get-to-the point look at the life of the poet and his work.

He's No "Lifestyle" Poet
Folks just can't seem to get over the stark contrast between Wallace Stevens the man and Wallace Stevens the poet. Why couldn't he just stumble out of bars screaming at the heavens like a normal poet?

Friends and Enemies, Welcome
Check out this group of Wallace Stevens fans (and… others), based in Stevens' home of Hartford, Connecticut.

Video

Weird and Perfect for the Emperor
These guys do a pretty great job of capturing the weirdness and fun of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" in their short animated video.

Bill Murray Digs Wallace Stevens
Check out Bill Murray reading a poem by Wallace Stevens, even if it's just to hear Murray's quirky voice.

Rock Out, '90s-Style
Check out this passable, '90s-era pop rock outfit from Ireland. Ladies and gentleman, The Emperor of Ice-Cream!

Audio

A Serious Reading
We like this rich-voiced presentation.

Librivoxin'
Here's another audio version.

Articles and Interviews

"He's no Jekyll-Hyde"
Here's an interview with the New York Times back in 1954. It's a good snapshot of the poet, his work, and his attitude about life.

Obit
The poet's own obituary is worth having a look at, considering the context of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream."

A "Pure" Poet
Check out this pretty lukewarm review of Stevens' first book, Harmonium.

Wallace Stevens, Football Fan?
At least one writer imagines the connection.

Books

Things Merely Are
Philosophy and poetry don't have to be totally unapproachable and this writer does a great job of breaking things down for us when it comes to Wallace Stevens.

A Poet's Growth
Critic George Lensing provides a concise (still a book) yet interesting run-through of the poet's life and work.

Letters of Wallace Stevens
It's always fun exploring the nitty-gritty of poets' lives… if you're not the poet, that is. But if your daughter puts it together, it can't be that bad, right?

Images

Deep Thoughts
Just imagine the ideas rolling around in ol' Wallace's noggin.

Artist's Rendition (#1)
Here is a cool artist's interpretation of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream."

Artist's Rendition (#2)
Another interpretation can be found here.