The Emperor of Ice-Cream Summary
The poem begins with cigars and ice cream being prepared. Women ("wenches") are hanging out and boys are bringing flowers. Hey, is somebody having a party? Nope, it turns out. These are preparations for a funeral, or perhaps more likely a wake.
Who died? We learn that it's a she, and that she has "horny feet." Not attractive. Beyond that, we don't really know much about this woman, other than the she used to like to sew, and that her dresser is missing some knobs. Sad. The speaker calls for a lamp to be lit, and reminds us that "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream."
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
- We start with a command, but we're not quite sure who's giving the command. We know the speaker wants someone to roll a "big cigar," so we have reason to suspect that something important is happening.
- We may also have some symbolism going on with the image of the "big cigar." Cigars are usually smoked on special occasions so this may be a symbol for an accomplishment, celebration, or simply enjoying life.
- We also know that there are "rollers" of cigars, which means they are made nearby.
- (Biography note: We get our first hint that we're in Key West, where lots of people work in cigar factories. How do we get that hint? Well, Wallace Stevens spent a lot of time in Key West, Florida. He wrote about the place, too—just check out his "The Idea of Order at Key West."
- Now, Key West is a smorgasbord of different cultures, including but not limited to Cubans. Cigar factories are very common in the region and many Cuban immigrants still make them like they did in the old days: by hand. Also, it seems that ice-cream was known to be served at funerals! This may be weird for us, but it was certainly an influence for this poem, too.)
- Then we get that the roller is a "muscular one," which makes us think that he's had a lot of practice making cigars. Although, it's not like making cigars is the same as lifting weights. At the least, we can say that this "muscular one" is somebody who is active, who puts his body to work.
- He's got another job, now. The speaker tells the muscular cigar roller to do something else too: "bid him whip." Notice the assonance (repeated vowel sound) in these three words. The short I sound of "bid him whip" almost mimics the sharp, brusque, and repeated motions of the actions being requested (for more on things like assonance, check out the "Sound Check" section).
- We don't know what the muscular guy is supposed to "whip" because the line ends here, even though the idea is connected to the following line. We therefore have an example of enjambment, since we don't have any punctuation separating this line with the following one and the idea is still not complete.
- The suspense is killing us!
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
- Okay, so now we get the full idea: the muscular cigar rolling guy is being called to whip up some "concupiscent curds." Huh? What are those? Well, concupiscent really means to have sexual desire. Hmm. And curds? Well, those are just coagulated lumps of milk. Yum!
- Okay, so how can milky lumps have sexual desire? You know, that's a really good question. We think the title might be helpful here, though. What kind of milk product might arouse the most excitement? Ice cream! After all, I scream for it; you scream for it; heck, we all scream for it. So, at this point, it looks like this is just a fancier—way fancier—way of referring to ice cream.
- How about the way these lines sound on the tongue? "[K]itchen cups concupiscent curds" gives us four hard C sounds in a row. That can't be a coincidence (yet another hard C sound). This use of alliteration may simply be sonic playfulness for the sake of being playful, or there may be a bigger reason for it. We'll keep going through the poem, but feel free to click ahead to the "Sound Check" section for more details, if you want.
- Also notice that we're in a kitchen ("kitchen cups"), so we might at this point be in someone's house. Consider the significance of this, too. A home tends to be a casual environment (as opposed to, you know, a state dinner), so we begin to get a clearer sense of where we are in the poem. No fancy, stuffy, or "proper" shenanigans are going on in here.
- Still, there's a limit to informality. Rule of thumb: never call your girlfriend a "wench." Now that that's out of the way, let's consider why the speaker is using this word. Historically, "wench" has been used to describe young "women of the night," which is just a nicer way of calling these kinds of ladies prostitutes, servants, or a combination of both.
- Here, the word means the same thing, though we don't have any concrete details about these wenches. Maybe they're prostitutes, maybe they're not, but that's not really the point here. Rather, the speaker invites them to "dawdle in such dress." Again, the idea isn't complete yet, so we have more enjambment.
- But why "dawdle?" What comes to mind when you hear that word? Mom yelling at you for not getting ready for school quicker? Your teacher encouraging you to finish up your test and quit staring out the window? Again, the speaker may just be furthering the casual atmosphere of the poem's setting. Nothing is being rushed here.
- Alternatively, maybe the speaker is beginning to use words here that reference time and how we use our time. We either dawdle or rush to get things done. When we dawdle we also give the impression that we're not making the most of our time. Maybe that's part of the speaker's larger point? Let's read on…
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
- A-ha! "[D]awdle in such dress / as they are used to wear" is the full idea here. What does that mean? If you are used to dressing a certain way, that means that the clothes you typically wear reflect your style and personality. It's your "normal" wear. You're not trying to be someone you're not. It's the same idea here. "Wenches" are not typically dressed in evening gowns and fur coats. They don't have a lot of money, so they wear modest and cheap-looking clothing.
- The speaker is instructing them to wear what they're used to wearing and not change simply because an occasion calls for something different.
- Notice too that we have a lot of enjambment going on in this poem. Every line relates to those that precede and follow. It's all connected, in other words. As a result, the reads a bit more like a flowing conversation, rather than a series of declarations. The speaker is making some observation to us, his reader, but, even though he seems to be running the show, he seems interested in engaging our attention by pulling it along from the end of one line to the start of the next.
- While the wenches are wearing their normal dress, the boys are being told to bring flowers in "last month's newspapers." It seems like they don't have to be specially tied up with ribbons and bows. Any old wrapping will do.
- Once again, appearances are being pooh-poohed here. The speaker is more about what the people do than what it looks like when they do it.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
- Huh. Now this is confusing. Still, there aren't any typos here. There are really supposed to be two "be"s in this line. Why? Well, here's a thought: one is a noun and one is a verb. Think of it this way: that first "be" in the line is there as a shorter, fancier way of saying "being," the act of life. In other words, this line is saying "Let life (be-ing) be the end (finale) of superficial appearances (seem)."
- Remember the laid-back attitude about the dress of the "wenches" and the presentation of the flowers? It's clear that this speaker is not concerned with appearances. Like, at all. Here he really drives that point home. He's saying let's be real. Let's not seem to be anything. Let's be exactly what we are. Let's be true to our being.
- And then we get to the root of the poem's title: "The emperor of ice-cream." It's a silly-sounding line and it's supposed to be. When we think of emperors, we typically think of rich important men who rule their kingdoms with an iron fist. Here, the speaker takes that archetype and turns it on its head. Here the importance of this emperor's job is to oversee ice cream.
- Now, we think that this would be a great job, but we understand that the speaker is essentially poking fun at the emperors of the world by suggesting that their job is no more important than overseeing ice cream.
- At the same time, ice cream can be seen as so important that, yes, it needs an emperor to oversee it. We're beginning to get the impression that this poem is trying to realign our priorities just a bit. Ruling vast imperial domains? Out. Making sure we're all enjoying a nice scoop of Rocky Road? In!
- So by the end of this first stanza, we're starting to understand the speaker's vision a little more. The focus of this poem is to get us to reconsider the way we live our lives, and the value we place on appearances.
- Also very important is that this first stanza ends with a resounding couplet of two rhyming, separate sentences. (For more on this, take a look at the "Form and Meter" section.) The periods in these lines invite the reader to take their time and consider each line by itself. Once they do, it comes as no shock that both of these lines are the most powerful and relevant to the poem's main themes. So far, anyway…
Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
- Here in the second stanza we get our first glimpse at the former life of the dead woman. The language is a little ambiguous, but never forget, we're dealing with poetry here. We're supposed to question and analyze things in our own way.
- To do that, let's take these lines bit by bit. As far as setting goes, we've moved from the kitchen to a bedroom, apparently (since bedrooms are usually where the dressers are kept).
- What kind of dresser is it? Well, an obscure definition of "deal" is cheap wood of some kind. The thing is also missing three of its knobs, so we're not looking at anything from an overpriced furniture shop. This tells us something about the woman. She didn't make a lot of money and she didn't spend a lot of money.
- Also, pay attention to our speaker. He/she is giving us more commands. Pretty bossy, no? At this point we can make some determinations about our speaker, who seems to be orchestrating these events through his (we're assuming it's a he) commands. In that way, it's as though the speaker is in control, and in the know.
- Notice too the difference in form compared to the first stanza. We'll talk more about this in the "Form and Meter" section, but for now compare the use of a comma in the very first line of the poem and the use of a period in this first line of the second stanza. Why is Stevens not keeping with a specific form?
- While we ponder that, the speaker is busy giving us orders again. We have to "Take […] that sheet." Take it where? Tell us!
- Wait—first we have to get to the next line. Once again, we're left hanging on an enjambment.
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
- So, now that we get the full picture, the idea here is "that sheet / On which she embroidered fantails once." Great. What's a fantail? Here it suggests a decorative design that resembles a fancy peacock or other bird whose tail looks like a pretty fan, like this.
- So, we got that straight, but who is "she," other than somebody who liked to embroider (sew pretty decorative pieces)?
- Hang on a tick. Before we do more sleuthing, let's consider some more symbolism going on. What comes to mind when you think of a bird with a fantail, like a peacock? A beautiful bird? Useless bird? (Sorry peacocks, we mean no offense.) Maybe a bird that we recognize simply because of its appearance?
- Hmm. It seems that we have more evidence to support the poem's focus on appearances.
- So, what's the poem trying to tell us about appearances here? Well, it's clear that all these fancy patterns were embroidered "once," but apparently no longer.
- So, they've gone by the wayside, but why? Let's look closer.
- The next line tells us (more orders—so bossy!) to take that sheet and spread it over the woman's face. Aha. Since that's the kind of thing that is typically done to dead bodies, we can assume that this woman, who once sewed these pretty designs, is now dead. Sad.
- Of course, this act is another kind of attention to appearances. Dead folks probably don't mind whether their face is showing or not. It's usually something the living do to shut out the appearance of death isn't it?
- So, let's back up a second and find ourselves. Here we are at a wake (where a celebration of the dead person is held in the presence of their body). People are eating ice cream and smoking cigars. In other words, it looks like we have a pretty obvious contrast of life and death occurring at the same time.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
- Here we get a glimpse of the woman's actual corpse, and it's not pretty.
- First off, we can't ignore the use of the word "horny." It's probably not what you think, though (we know you too well, Shmoopers). Have you even seen anyone's feet who spent a lot of time walking or standing, especially in ill-fitting shoes? Usually, that makes for a bunch of bunions and calluses. The feet get tough and lumpy from all that physical stress, and start to resemble horns.
- So, this woman's feet (as well as her cheap, broken dresser) speak to a difficult life of physical labor.
- That's sad, but it's in our face. They "protrude," or stick out. The sheet covers part of her, but those feet are still in our view. We can't ignore them.
- Still, they have a point, the speaker tells us (he seems to really have a lot of insight as he runs this show): "To show how cold she is, and dumb."
- Of course, a corpse would be cold (no warm blood pumping through it) and dumb (using the old-fashioned definition meaning mute, silent).
- In other words, then, the feet of this poor, dead woman are reminders to us: death is real, we can't escape it, and it happens to us all.
- Now, don't you feel better?
- No? Well, how about this? Notice how this woman reminds us of death through the way she looks. In keeping with our poem's focus, it is specifically her appearance that is the final reminder of the inevitability and finality of death. It's as though, the speaker is telling us, the only kind of appearance that really matters is the kind that is really, undoubtedly true. Tough as it is to deal with, death is true. The rest of that stuff (like fantails on a sheet) is just meaningless distraction.
- Boy, now we're depressed! Let's see if the speaker can cheer us up at all…
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
- So, we wrap up the poem in the same way the first stanza wraps up: with a rhyming couplet of two separate sentences. Let's take these lines one at a time.
- Symbol alert! The speaker is now commanding that a lamp be lit. More specifically, he wants the lamp to "affix its beam." In other words, he wants the light to shine on a very specific target ("affix" means to… fix, but fix to what?).
- What might this target be? Well, this where symbolism comes in. Ever had anybody "shed some light" on an issue for you? If so, you know that this is figurative language that means to explain or enlighten someone. So, symbolically, the speaker is calling for some kind of enlightenment to take place here.
- What should we realize, O great speaker?
- "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Right, got it. Only, you said that already, back in line 8. So, why might the speaker be repeating it? Has anything changed by the end of the poem when we think of an "emperor of ice-cream"?
- In both cases, the speaker is reminding us to take enjoyment where we can from life. In this instance, we've just encountered a corpse, which is a pretty vivid reminder that (to use a cliché) time flies.
- So, this reminder seems to be the main point that the speaker is driving home, the idea that he wants that lamp to symbolically illuminate for the reader.
- To sum up, all of our disguises, anxieties, empires, missed opportunities are distractions from the big picture. What really matters is how we enjoy life and live each day to the fullest. Emperor, wench, or dead woman, no one can overcome the true "finale" of life (i.e., death).