Study Guide

The Emperor of Ice-Cream Death

By Wallace Stevens

Death

Call the roller of big cigars, (1)

Less rolling on the floor in sadness, and more rolling of cigars! We only live once and every day should be cause for a celebration, even if we're attending a wake.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. (8)

We can fuss all we want over our political leaders, but really in the end (when death comes for us) the only emperor that matters is the one who measures just how much fun we had. So really, there are no "real" emperors, unless we've fallen for their clever disguises.

[…] that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once (10-11)

Death tends to make a mockery of our endeavors. Maybe this woman worked really hard at getting those fantails just right. In the end, though, they didn't stop the arrival of death. Maybe she might have better spent her time eating ice cream.

[…] spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb. (12-14)

Death is the ultimate reality here. Sure, you can try to fool yourself by covering the dead woman's face with a sheet. Funnily enough (and it's pretty dark humor, we admit) the sheet is too short! Her dead feet stick out, as if to say, "Boo! Death is as real as these cold, unmoving feet! Now deal with that, folks."