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The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Coming to Grips with Ambiguity
  • 1:18 Poem Overview
  • 2:26 Imagery & Connotaton
  • 4:52 Reaching Conclusions
  • 7:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Wallace Stevens's poem 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream' is famous (and infamous) for the challenge it offers to students. This lesson will bring it down to earth a little, and provide a framework for understanding and appreciating the poet's work.

Coming to Grips with Ambiguity

Wallace Stevens's poem 'The Emperor of Ice Cream' is famous for its poetic qualities, but also for its capacity to create interpretive headaches -- poetic brainfreeze if we run with the ice cream concept. The poem is saturated with ambiguity, which refers to an intentional lack of resolution and clarity. So if we want to draw some meaning out of the poem, we need to get comfortable with this opacity, and use what the poem gives us. Imagery and language connotations can help make meaning out of this ambiguity.

First, let's read the poem together:

The Emperor of Ice Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Poem Overview

The poem consists of two, balanced, eight-line sections or stanzas. The scenario is assumed to be a wake for a dead woman. It is generally agreed that stanza one takes place in the kitchen, and stanza two in the bedroom of the same house.

In the first stanza, a muscular cigar roller will be called on to whip up the ice cream. The wake will be informal. The young women can wear their regular daily outfits. The flowers, delivered by local boys, can be wrapped in month-old newspapers. But then the seeming practical details give way to a pair of enigmatic lines:

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In the second stanza, we move on to the bedroom. The body also has to be prepared. The embroidered sheet from the dresser will be used to cover her face. If her knobby, old feet stick out, it will remind us that she is truly dead. And again, we have the concluding lines that take us out of this concrete situation and into ambiguity:

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Imagery & Connotation

Imagine a camera focused on a burly man's arms and hands at work, whipping ice cream. He's a cigar roller, so his hands are strong and flexible. Zoom in: the nails have a brown tint and dark residue under the fingernails from his work. The camera then shifts to the young women, focusing on their dresses and shoes, their skirts swirling and their feet shifting as they meet and greet in no particular hurry. Then the boys appear, legs churning, and the camera quickly zeroes in on what they carry: vibrantly colorful, fresh cut flowers, contrasting brilliantly with the black and white of their wrappers. Odd imagery.

The language is odd as well, taking on what Stevens once described as 'the essential gaudiness of poetry', and connotations become crucial. Language connotations are the associated or secondary meanings that go beyond literal definitions. The ice cream is 'concupiscent curds', which by definition makes a frozen, lustful dessert. Female attendees are called 'wenches', which can refer either to young women in general, or to servants and prostitutes. They 'dawdle.' Like 'concupiscent', it is a word that you roll around in your mouth to pronounce, like a luscious treat. The flowers ride in on the energy of boys, wrapped in 'last month's newspapers', and their fragrance and beauty overshadows the old news of the world. These images become more than mere pictures through language. It draws special attention to their vitality, their physicality, and their command of the moment, and they lead to the cryptic final lines of the stanza, which is a rhymed couplet.

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