The “Emperor of Ice-Cream,” by Wallace Stevens, depicts a bizarre wake that is marked with sex and partying. A discussion about death would normally be characterized by an air that is sober, serious, or even reflective. However, the poem has a pompous, almost nonsensical, tone. Unnamed speakers encourage mourners to behave in ways more suited for a birthday party than for a funeral. They also mock the corpses for their sexual revelries. Wallace’s odd refrain “the only thing that matters is ice-cream” adds to the confusion. Though Wallace seems more interested in obscuring meaning than creating any, the lines are not without sense. Stevens makes fun of the conventional grieving process by using sexual imagery in contrast to it. By doing so, he mocks them and exposes their hypocrisy.
The first stanza describes a scene that is more like a party than a wake. It’s exuberant and resembles an extravagant celebration. The speaker begins by making two demands which reveal the unusually convivial nature. “Call in the rollers of big cigars,” and “bide him whip / In kitchen cups, concupiscent cuds.” In Western cultures, cigars have become a symbol of celebration. People light them at a baby’s birth or when they reach a lucrative agreement. They are not commonly associated with death or mourning. Preparing “concupiscent curls” also contradicts the tone of the occasion. The word “concupiscent”, which means to be sexually eager, is used in the preparation of the custards. This is aphrodisiacal, and the custards will have a lustful, sexually enticing flavor. The “muscular one”‘s” lasciviousness, color, and texture of her creamy dishes can also be seen as a subtle reference to some intimate fluids.
The first stanza’s commands to boys and girls also undermine the sobriety that is expected of a funeral because they encourage sexual activity. The speaker instructs “Let wenches dawdle” in their usual attire, rather than the black, grave clothing that is usually worn for a funeral. By telling women to remain in their regular clothes, he undermines the reverence of the event. The strange phrase “dress as they’re used to” and its emphasis in the poem by using rigid iambic petrameter point to a more active parody of a wake. Stevens’ “are used” should be read “used to”. Also, his choice of words (“are used”) over others like “often”,”typically” and “wont” is also curious. It would be wonderful to use “wont”, which is both a word that maintains current meter, syntax, and creates a lovely alliteration when used with the word “wear”. Wallace’s description is explained by another odd word choice: “wenches,” which refers to lewd or prostitute women. If we consider the phrase in relation to loose or harlot women rather than maids/servants or maids/servants “dress/as they used/to wear”, it can be interpreted as a somewhat derogatory description of women. The phrase is meant to command women to not only dress in the normal clothes that they wear, but also act normally, sexually.
The speaker at the wake also demands that the boys behave in a complimentary manner. The boys were asked to bring flowers wrapped in newspapers from last month. The flowers appear to not be intended for the deceased woman. In reality, the boys are following a cultural convention that is different. They deliver ragtag bouquets of flowers to their dates – wenches sitting idly and “dawdling”. The flowers symbolize fun and courtship, just like “concupiscent” curds and the dresses of wenches that “they’re used to wearing”. They are not at home at the scene of death but they would be perfect at a hedonistic party celebrating life.
The first stanza uses lusty language and rhythms in order to create a mood of joy and celebration, but the second half of this poem uses the same themes for scorn and contempt. Sexual imagery has a negative connotation when used to describe the corpse. The “horny” feet of the dead woman suggest that she epitomizes vulgarity, even after death. The line break after the words “they” is an especially crude allusion, which suggests that her feet have been sexually aroused so much that they are close to orgasm despite death. These insinuations have been made with street-slang and not the subtle insinuations in the opening stanza. The shame of death can also be seen in the speaker’s request for a cover to be placed over the woman. The speaker reduces the woman to a joke: “she’s…dumb”. She is no longer alive and is therefore mute.
The wenches, boys and girls of the first stanza are encouraged to engage in sexual behavior. However, the dead woman’s actions are criticized. This text creates an ambiguous view of sexuality. But the ambiguity will be resolved once the obscure refrain is explained at the conclusion of each line. The first half ends “Let be finale of appear / The one emperor, the emperor who eats ice cream”, while the second says “Let lamp affix beam / Only emperor the emperor eating ice cream”. Both have similarities in their rhymes and syntactical structures. They also conclude the same way. It’s interesting that each couplet starts with a question about how to determine the truth. “Let the truth be finale” emphasizes objective reality. “Be”, the “finale”, is more important than subjective perceptions. The metaphorical repetition of this idea, “Let a lamp attach its beam”, is achieved by relying on a archetypal image. In the next line both establish the verity of the statement, “The emperor who is only the emperor for ice-cream.”
What is the truth? The word “emperor’ implies a powerful, sovereign who is regarded as superior to even a monarch. The emperor must then preside over ice-cream as a dessert and not a state or empire. It is something sweet, delicious, and a vice that must be consumed before melting. In a piece of poetry that focuses on death, the “delicacy,” in this case, is the pleasures of living. First and second stanzas can be interpreted as “be” and the “seem” life. The “be” represents the enjoyment of the moment and the carousal that the wenches, boys, and girls are having. The “seem” represents the death specter that is looming over them, and will make them laugh. The “seem” of death is what they ignore, just as the dead body would be.
Stevens reveals the hypocrisy of man by using sexual imagery to contrast his views on life. By putting the party in front of the wake, Stevens forces the reader to see the joy and wonder why life is so tarnished. Wallace’s use Christian rhetoric shows how serious he takes this topic. Even the Lord, who is the Christian “king” and “emperor” for piety and morality, can be influenced by the “emperor” ice cream. It’s also his dogmatism in religion: the strong Christian rhetoric used by the speaker is at odds to the message of the poem and must therefore be regarded as satire. As a host, the emperor wants his guests at his event to have a great time.