Study Guide

The Emperor of Ice-Cream Setting

By Wallace Stevens


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.