On ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’

19 10 2009

The Emperor of Ice-Cream *
by Wallace Stevens

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.

In a classical mimetic theory, the thing being imitated is meaningful, but it is meaningful only in the way that any object or event is inherently meaningful.  Steven’s poem here, however, is not classically mimetic, for while there is the image of an actual ice-cream maker evoked in the poem, it is not the literal connotations of the ice-cream man that Stevens is using, rather it is the symbolic connotations. These symbolic connotations, unlike, say ‘goldenness’ or ‘a dark and shadowy figure’, are not inherent in the object itself. Which is to say: the object doesn’t have an inherent symbolic meaning. Instead the symbolism of ‘the emperor of ice-cream’ is particular to Stevens, and thus the poem attempts to explain the image, while at the same time evoking the emotional sense that originally lead to the phrase being created.

The ice-cream maker in this poem is not a mere maker of ice-cream. The poem names him twice, as well as in the title, as the ‘Emperor’ of ice-cream.  He is lord over a dominion. In the first stanza the dominion he presides over is the one where ‘wenches dawdle’ and boys ‘bring flowers’ and when ‘be’ becomes ‘finale of seem’, and they wed, ‘the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.’ His dominion in the first stanza, in fact, is the natural process of ‘boy meets girl’; the process of falling in love. The making of ice-cream and its consumption becomes a metaphorical image representing the process of adolescent courtship, contained within the quotidian experience of ice-cream, dresses, and flowers. Thus the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ is that god, or natural force, which oversees such interactions.

In the final stanza, however, we have something else. The images are of battered ‘glass knobs’, and an embroidered sheet (embroidered sometime in the past), and the cold, horny feet of an old woman who has plainly died. The objects here, the knobs, the sheet, the feet and their coldness, the lamp, are all signals of the end of life, the stillness of death, and yet still here ‘the only emperor’ still ‘is the emperor of ice-cream.’ The same emperor who oversaw the beginning of relationships presides over the cold, still end of a single love. The image of the emperor is re-imagined, retrospectively, and the ice-cream imagined at the beginning is re-imagined at the end in the coldness of the feet and the warmth of the lamp. The ice-cream, then, becomes mortality itself, and time the lamp that shines to melt it. The emperor of ice-cream is the cold fact of life and death. As was said previously, however, this is not a universal metaphor. Instead the image is Stevens’ alone, a personal interpretation figured outwards through physical/visual metaphor.

The works of Imagism, then, are plainly not just mimetic in the classical sense. In classical mimetic theory the objects of the poem were written into the world, and their significance came from the associations of worldly objects and behaviour (Abrams, 1953). In Imagism the objects are written into the mind, with the Romantic colouring of ‘things’ by the poet, and they operate dynamically within the mind also. In this way it is possible to see Imagism as being a combination of Mimetic theories of the imitated object/action in poetry and the romantic attachment to the poet.


* STEVENS, W. 2001. Harmonium, London, Faber and Faber.

The Image and Bachelard

10 07 2009
Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms

I have been reading a lot lately in preparation for an application to a research degree here in Sydney, Australia. That application has been lodged now, thankfully, but I’ve continued reading, mostly for my own interest, and partly because I know that if I get accepted I’m going to have to back up my proposal ‘talk’ with a serious and studious amount of ‘walk’. As part of this reading I’ve picked up a copy of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘On Poetic Imagination and Reverie’, which is available from Amazon.com. I’m still working my way through Collete Gaudin’s well thought out and interesting introduction to the work, and already it has me questioning some of the basic assumptions of our language.

 The one I want to write about at the moment is the idea and concepts surrounding the word ‘image’, as understood by our culture, and as understood by Bachelard. This will by no means be a definitive examination, but my first gentle foray into playing with this area of thinking, so take from it what you will.

 The first thing I think we should look at is: what do we mean when we use the word ‘image’? In English speaking cultures the word image has come to predominately mean a visual representation. This is not to say that the meaning of the word has degraded from a broader concept in recent, more technological times. Quite the contrary. A definition given in 1707 gives the meaning as ‘an artificial resemblance, either in painting or sculpture. However, the word, etymologically, runs:

 c.1225, “artificial representation that looks like a person or thing,” from O.Fr. image, earlier imagene (11c.), from L. imaginem (nom. imago) “copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance,” from stem of imitari “to copy, imitate” (see imitate). Meaning “reflection in a mirror” is c.1315. The mental sense was in L., and appears in Eng. c.1374. Sense of “public impression” is attested in isolated cases from 1908 but not in common use until its rise in the jargon of advertising and public relations, c.1958. Imagism as the name of a movement in poetry that sought clarity of expression through use of precise visual images, “hard light, clear edges,” was coined 1912 by Ezra Pound.

So the word has its roots in ‘copying, imitating’ rather that superficially resembling. And this, I think it key to the difference between how our current culture uses the word ‘image’ colloquially, and how we actually employ images, especially poetically.

 When we say ‘Image’ these days too often we mean ‘picture’, whereas what image means is ‘an artificial representation’, which needn’t be entirely visual. It is interesting to note that the French for image, funnily enough, is image (I put it in italics to help you imagine the accent), and the meaning translates not just to ‘visual’ image, but also to ‘idea’. It’s easy to over-read this sort of effect. However, what I hope to emphasise is that an image, as commonly understood, tends to under-emphasise the non-visual elements of the image.

 What Bachelard emphasises in his writing is the ‘material’ nature of the image. There is a complicated thought process behind this idea, but what it boils down to in my mind is that the material image, as understood by Bachelard, encompases the entire experience, conceptual, physical and referential, of a thing, not just the sight of it. In fact, Gaudin’s exegesis quotes as “Images are ‘lived’, ‘experienced,’ ‘reimagined’ in an act of consciousness …” In this way he downplays Sartre’s use of symbols:

Bachelard challenges Sartre’s choice of softness, viscosity, and shapelessness as direct symbols of the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness. … these are perjorative qualities, fixed in the moment of their material becoming.

 The point of Bachelard’s challenge is that softness, viscosity, shapelessness are not well chosen as symbols because there is no material experience to be found in them. They are immaterial and abstract, and as such do not relate back to an image, as such, but to a suggestion of one. As Gaudin explains, they are ‘fixed’ in place before they have become real.  However, an image that does adequately symbolise ‘the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness’ could itself conjure sensations/connotations of softness, viscosity, shapelessness.

 I think that an image must suggest the materiality of the thing being imagined. In this sense, then, the Poundian/Imagist idea of the image as an experience comes more into focus as the attempt, not just to describe visually, but to present the imagined materialisation of time, place, object etc. I’ll end with a famous example of Poundian Imagism. The haiku-esqu:


 The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

 The poem is strongly visual, there’s no denying this. But the poem is not just attempting to superimpose one image on another in order to point out similarities. There is a definite, materialism to the imagery. The faces of the people, above their dark clothes, do not just resemble the bough visually, they are also wet, and fragile as petals. Pound attempts to convey not just an image that may be considered beautiful, but also his own sense of experiencing beauty. Suddenly, succinctly, at a glance. The image as an experience.