Study Guide

The Emperor of Ice-Cream Analysis

  • Sound Check

    As you've probably already noticed, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is not a poem that's wallowing in tears, even if it's set at a wake. Instead, it's got a carefree sound to it that's not holding us to any one dominant form, meter, or sound pattern.

    Still, we can spot an instance or two of alliteration or the repetition of initial consonant sounds ("cups concupiscent curds"), and assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds (like the short I sound in "bid him whip"). What is this doing in the poem? Well, consider the joy of language play, for example with a tongue-twister or a good old onomatopoeia. There's just something really enjoyable about playing around with sounds in language, isn't there? And here, in a poem that's asking us to embrace such a moment of enjoyment, we get this kind of sonic play. It's like Stevens is serving up some ice cream for our ears!

    There are other sounds to pay attention to, as well. The rhyming couplets that we get at the end of each stanza have a fun sound to them as well. Each word, "seem" and "beam," rhymes with "ice-cream." Not only does this focus our attention more on the importance of the symbolic ice cream (see the "Symbolism" section for more on that) and the words that surround it, but it also reminds us that we should be enjoying the sound of the poem as well. For, if we are, then that kind of in-the-moment fun is keeping us from the meaningless distraction of appearances, and the speaker's message has sunk in!

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We know by now that the title is very important here. It must be since Stevens repeats it twice in a short two-stanza poem. We also know that it's a silly-sounding title, even though it's still important. (Come on—can you imagine some guy sitting on a throne made out of cookie bits and sprinkles?) There's some significance here in the idea that, although the title sounds silly, it's getting at a pretty loaded idea.

    We get that emperors are hotshots with iron fists. But this emperor is one with an ice cream in hand! What's he in charge of then? How about pure, unadulterated enjoyment? We mean, just try to worry about life while eating ice cream—we dare you. Can't do it, can you? That's because that enjoyable sensation attunes you to the moment, that fleeting yet fundamental experience of being a human being on planet Earth.

    Once you get beyond that fundamental truth, everything else, really, is a kind of window dressing. It's all so much… appearance. To heck with that, this poem tells us. Just enjoy the experience of being. Need a role model? Well, we can' think of a better one than our titular friend: the emperor of ice-cream. He's an inspiration to all of us not to sweat the small stuff, and to rule our own empires of simple, unadulterated truths. We'll start our rule with two scoops of peanut butter and chocolate, please!

  • Setting

    Let's face it: a wake is probably not someone's first choice when planning to have fun. Sure, wakes are typically festive remembrances of the deceased, with drinking and music and storytelling, but there remains one small element that tends to bring things down a bit: you know, the dead body?

    Still, this collision of a party and death is the perfect choice for a poem like this. Death, this poem reminds us, is coming—no matter how much money you do (or don't) have, no matter how many friends you might have on Facebook. The question is, how do you live life in light of that undeniable truth?

    Well, you can distract yourself with meaningless "fantails" and appearances, stuffing yourself with the latest iGadgets till you don't have to think about death at all. Or, you can simply face facts and appreciate the moment. You can live each part of your life as if it were the last—because it may well be.

    In a way, then, this wake is the perfect setting for the poem, since it represents a decision not to mourn or run away from death, but to accept it, and to celebrate life regardless of death's imminent presence. In a broad sense, the wake represents the enactment of the speaker's central message: even in the presence of death, we should enjoy the taste of ice cream—and the focused moment of bliss that pleasure affords.

  • Speaker

    The voice of the speaker is one of authority. This is a guy who knows the score. Check it out: he knows what's going on in the kitchen. He knows what's going on in the bedroom. He knows the local folk ("the muscular one" and "the wenches"). Most importantly, he knows what this whole wake-scene means.

    Perhaps, for that reason, the speaker is such a grand director. Just consider all the orders he gives in the poem: "Call the roller […] bid him whip […] Let the wenches dawdle," etc., etc. Now this is a guy in charge. And what's the point of all this direction? Well, it seems like he's arranging this scene for us to communicate an important message. And, if we had to guess, that message is "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream."

    Got it! Thanks for the memo, O great speaker. Of course, you can read more about the significance of this emperor in the "Symbolism" section. What concerns our speaker here is the notion that he's trying to convey an important message to us through the example of this emperor: nevermind the superficial stuff. Be in the moment, every moment, just like you're eating an ice cream cone.

    Naturally, this speaker is not going to come right out and put it so flatly for us. Rather, he uses a casual approach, bringing us along through the poem in a way that engages us, and provokes us to reflect upon the way we choose to live our own lives: all about the appearance, or in the moment. That's a big thing to consider, and we have this speaker—the head honcho in charge—to thank for it!

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Although it's only sixteen lines long, Stevens makes us pay a lot of attention to each word in "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." A cigar, in this case, is not just a cigar. Ice cream may be a simple treat, but there's more to it than just sugar and cream. And the emperor, in his typically tyrannical way, is demanding that we look at him in a different way too, even if he isn't real.

    At first glance, it might just look like a silly poem, but when we look closer we begin to notice patterns, symbols, and repetition of key words and ideas that make us think twice. The emperor is different for a reason, and he's not just an "emperor of ice-cream" because Stevens thought it sounded cool.

    So there's quite a bit of untangling that we have to do here, whether we're looking for symbols, themes, or just trying to keep track of all of the enjambment that's going on. Also, Stevens isn't making the process very easy, since we have a lot of ambiguity and unusual phrasing (typical hallmarks of a Stevens poem).

    Still, once we do get our bearings and begin to understand that the main idea here is to be in the moment the way we are when we enjoy life, that we should make the most of it before we're dead, we start to appreciate the language of the poem a bit more. More than that, we can appreciate the journey of reflection it took to get us to this idea.

  • Calling Card

    Making the Imagination Real

    We talked about the difference between "seeming" and "being" in this poem. That distinction is a common theme in a lot of Stevens' poetry, in fact, and he was certainly an advocate of people being real in whatever capacity they're able. Still, this doesn't mean that what Stevens might think of as real is necessarily what we might think is real.

    Sounds confusing, but let's consider this idea: reality is based on perspective (how you see the world). Well, imagination is based on similar principles and Stevens was well aware of this. So he wrote a lot about how imagination shapes our perception of reality and that this is what makes poetry exciting and innovative. A lot of his modernist counterparts felt the same way, but Stevens gave it his own spin.

    For Stevens, reality was little more than a complex exercise of the imagination. See that ocean over there? Well, it's only an "ocean" insofar as your imagination structures that big wet thing for you in your mind. The supreme influence of our mind on what goes on around us in daily life is, in many ways, the main focus of Stevens' poetry. It's where the lamp of his art "affix[es] its beam."

    So, when you come across a poem that's paying attention to how "reality" gets structured, and when that poem gives mad props to the mind in creating that structure, be mindful! (See what we did there?) Chances are that you're dealing with the work of one Mr. Wallace Stevens.

  • Form and Meter

    Formally Informal Free Verse

    In a poem that argues against the value of mere appearances, you shouldn't expect a whole lot of attention to rigid form and meter. Still, we do get some symmetry in terms of form that is worth noting. Yes, in the "Line-By-Line Summary" we did discuss those rhyming couplets that each stanza ends with. Also, there's that famous refrain, in the very last line of each stanza. As well, both stanzas have eight lines, so it's not like Stevens is totally abandoning the idea of structure here.

    But perhaps that's the point. In a poem that's designed to get us to re-examine our reliance on appearances, this poem—at a glance—gives some the appearances of stylized form. Really, though, when you start to trace the meter, or rhythm of the language, you realize that there is much more playfulness at work than a strict poetic form would allow. It's as though the poem is acknowledging the importance of form overall, but really trying to work against that idea once you start paying closer attention to the language.

    Along those same lines, consider how much enjambment is going on here. One idea (line) flows into the next, creating something that looks sort of like a casual, free-form conversation. Nothing is forced to fit into a specific box or form, aside from the couplets. It's almost as if the poem's language itself is allowed to just be.

    Finally, let's return to those couplets for just a moment. They're the most direct, most important, and yet most stylized lines in this anti-style poem. So, what's up with that? Couldn't Stevens have delivered this idea another way? Well, one theory is that these rhyming lines are indicative of a touch of irony. And that might be part of the point, too. This poem celebrates… celebration, enjoyment, fun. By couching its message most succinctly in this very formal way, it's as if Stevens is also poking fun of the staid, formal poetic tradition himself. It's like a guy in a tuxedo, wearing a party hat and sticking out his tongue. Even in its most formal moments, the poem is telling us to relax, unwind, and embrace the reality of the moment.

  • The Emperor

    We see him first in the title and he's not what we normally expect when we imagine the archetype of an emperor. He's really more of an idea that's getting at all of the phony associations we have when we imagine emperors. This guy isn't in charge of an empire; he's the boss of… ice cream?! We don't know how you get such a position, but we imagine that it helps to have a sense of humor—particularly about yourself. Since he's also the star of the title, we begin the poem with a playful sense and a hint about what we should really consider important: enjoying life and worrying less about things like conventional emperors and other such matters that are based in appearance.

    • Title: This dude is the star of the show. Whatever the poem offers us, we read it with the image of this emperor in the back of our heads (at least we should, anyway).
    • Line 8: Not only is he an emperor, but he is also "the only emperor," which gives us reason to suspect that our speaker is making a pretty strong statement here about this fellow's power and importance. 
    • Line 16: Finally, we see him for the very last time in the poem within the last line. The same phrase is repeated again: "the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Notice too that the word "emperor" is repeated twice each time we see the phrase. Again, this refrain suggests that Stevens is driving the point home with the absurd image of the "only emperor" being an "emperor of ice-cream." What we end up with is the idea that there are no "real" emperors. They're just a bunch of guys with clever-looking costumes who do a good job of convincing us of their importance. The emperor in this poem leads us to consider how, if we're constantly hung up on appearances and playing roles, then we fail to appreciate what life should really be about: living!
  • Ice Cream

    Wherever we see the emperor, we see "ice-cream." There's some obvious difference going on here that's contrasting a stuffy emperor with the fun image of ice cream. Ice cream, perhaps more so than its other sweet counterparts, symbolizes all of those happy moments we may think of when we imagine its deliciousness. More than that, this sensation of happiness is what suspends our cares for how we look, how much money we have, who loves us or doesn't. It distills the essence of life into a single, focused moment. In that way, ice cream represent the true, authentic way to approach life: moment by moment.

    • Line 3: As a symbol, ice cream can represent the delightfulness of life, lightheartedness, and even sensuality. Those "concupiscent curds" point to the pure enjoyment of life in a sensuous form: food!
    • Line 8: Notice that "ice-cream" is the very last word in each stanza. We both begin and end the poem with that notion of enjoyment-in-the-moment. 
    • Line 16: And of course, we see it for the last time in the last line. Again, we're leaving the poem with one thing in mind: ice cream and all of the delicious joy it symbolizes. That focus on a pure moment of life, according to the poem, is something we should all strive to embrace.
  • Appearance Imagery

    We all wear disguises on occasion. Sometimes we do it because we have to, sometimes just because it's become a habit. Then there are times we use disguises to keep us feeling safe, maybe even predictable. However we use them, the fact still remains that we're hiding something. If we're dishonest about our disguises (pretending to be someone we're not), then we're certainly not doing ourselves any favors, according to our speaker. More than that, we're being distracted because we're too busy covering up the reality of life, rather than striving to embrace it in the moment.

    • Lines 4-5: The "wenches" are instructed to "dawdle in such dress as they are used to wear." They're not being told to doll themselves up in evening gowns and fur coats or funeral attire, for that matter. Rather, they should wear what they're used to wearing, which will more honestly reflect who they are. 
    • Line 7: This is one of the more powerful lines that's getting at the reality behind the disguise. "Seeming" is the disguise while "be" is the reality. Here, the speaker is calling for the "finale" of "seeming," which would ideally be the pure reality—not the disguise. 
    • Lines 10-14: Here we get the dead woman's sheet of "fantails" that is used to "cover her face." Fantails are highly decorative so they do a good job of covering up things. The fact that the sheet covers her face tells us that, even in death, appearances are important to us. The face is hidden so that we can put some small barrier between us and the reality of death. Notice, though, that—for all her fantail embroidering, and this attention to appearance—her feet still stick out. Dead, at the end of the day, is dead—regardless of anyone's attention to appearances.
    • Steaminess Rating


      Mainly, this is a death poem, not a sex poem. Still, we do get some "wenches," who probably have had sex on occasion. We don't see any of it here, though, and the only bedroom we get to visit has a dead woman in it—decidedly not sexy.