Though it is only two short stanzas in total, the poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream by the American modernist poet Wallace Stevens contains a large, fascinating and intricate degree of symbolism and imagery that needs to be highlighted and unpacked for the reader to gain a full and true understanding of the poem’s multiple layers and meanings. This essay will be focusing on three key elements of The Emperor of Ice-Cream: the notion of the emperor himself; the significance of the titular ice-cream; and the overall aspect of appearance imagery that runs through the poem.
We first read of the emperor in the title, but the reader soon learns that he is not an archetypal emperor figure. In fact, he is arguably more of an idea construct of all of the associations one imagines when thinking of an emperor. Rather than being in charge of a nation, he is in fact in charge of something trivial like ice-cream. We do not know how one rose to the position of emperor of ice-cream, but there is a degree of self awareness and sense of humour about the title, something rather playful that contrasts the activities of a real life emperor. Line 16 in particular alludes to the fact that seeing as the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream, that in fact there are no real emperors at all, and they only true force that you can rely on is that of death. We can draw this conclusion by assuming that the poem is taking place at or in preparation of a wake.
And as for the deeper meaning of the ice-cream, some background knowledge on Wallace Stevens and his associated culture is needed. Several historians have testified that the custom of serving ice-cream at a funeral wake was common practice at the time of this poem’s publication, and the contrast between a powerful emperor figure and the fact that he is only in charge of something as trivial as ice-cream suggests that Stevens is calling the grandeur of life somewhat futile in comparison to eternity after death, and that ice-cream is a symbol of the fun, sweetness and joy that should be taken moment by moment during a person’s life time before it is too late. The fact that ice-cream is the last word of each stanza is no accident, and can be seen as a reiteration that ice-cream at this time was symbol of death, equalling the end of the poem with the end of life.
And finally, a short discussion of the overall theme of appearance imagery throughout the poem. Evidenced by several different lines, it can be argued that Stevens is making a statement on the multiple forms of disguise that a person will wear during their lifetime. Disguises help to keep us safe, but the fact is that we are all hiding something at any given time, and by living like this we are not doing ourselves any favours in the long run.
Lines four and five can attest to this in the way that the wenches are ordered to ‘dawdle in such dress as they are used to wear’, meaning that rather than put on appearances and dress in an extraordinary or uncharacteristic way, they should instead reject any false pretences and remove any potential disguises in favour of showing their true selves. The fact that this poem takes place at a wake could possibly allude to the notion that before death, we are all the same in the way that we are stripped of our disguises.