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.