Harmony in the Grande “Finale”:
A Poststructural Reading of Stevens's “Emperor of Ice Cream”

by Jaimie Crawford

With a bit of guilt, Stevens explains poetry's “simple desire to contain the world” as a fresh American need (Filreis 175). His recognition of this Western desire allows, if not a freedom from it, an embracing of the question of its existence. In “Emperor of Ice Cream” by reflecting on experience rather than object, Stevens not only debates the power of poetry but mocks his own hubris in the process of creation; he compares emperor to poet to illustrate poetry as simultaneously powerful and futile.

A poem ostensibly about death, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” describes the gritty details of a low-income funeral through the haughty demands of a speaker. Three individuals reside in Stevens's poem: the caterer of “concupiscent curds,” the corpse whose face lies covered in the “embroidered fantails” of her youth, and the speaker who issues orders within orders: “[you] call the roller of big cigars [and order him] to whip...curds.” All three individuals experience death as their authority in the poem is uprooted: the “emperor” is imprisoned in the kitchen, the corpse's dignity is stripped as her “horny feet “ emerge, and the speaker's paradoxical message is so ineffectual he must remind us twice: “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” But in the presence of all this dying--as ”be” is commanded to slay “seem”--proof of vitality persists in the muscles, kitchen cups, and fresh flowers of the living; and neither “be” nor “seem” takes precidence in the poem.

Like Donne's “death,” Stevens's tyrant is both a fraud and a contradiction, a sovereign who reigns as supervisor of a substance which melts in minutes and is confined to the kitchen of a dingy apartment. In the space of the poem, however, this emperor is not only alive but the main focus of attention. This paradox represents the central question of the poem: does seeming supercede being? Stevens's dialogue shifts between what we see or what “seems” in his poem: a funeral which appears more like an autopsy and an emperor who rules concupiscent curds, and what we expect to “be”: the gravity of funerals, the triviality of ice-cream, and the omnipotence of emperors.

Like a siren, Stevens beckons us into the same trap in which he is ensnared: the desire to contain the wor(l)d, to answer the be/seem question. And nearly every critic who interprets the poem finds it necessary to do so, rejoicing in Stevens's “penultimate” line in which the “being of life gains victory over the seeming of art” (Jarraway 41, Viswanathan 85) or conversely suggesting Stevens's “infidelity of appearances” equates the triumph of “seeming” (Bates 144, Richardson 2). John McDermott goes so far as to cynically purport that the “emperor is a symbol of the death-in-life of man's imagination and spirit”(88). None of these readings encompass the complexity of Stevens's dialogue.

Coming closest to defining the intensions of “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Glen Macleod's essay on “It Must Give Pleasure” discusses Stevens's description of the “irrational” pleasure of poetry in the last section of “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” (33). “Poetry's pleasure,” Stevens argues, “cannot be arrived at by reason alone” but is “a truth recognized by sensation”(NA 58). This reason-sensation symbiosis echoes the relationships between the fleeting “ice cream” of our expectation and the seemingly permanent “concupiscence” of the poem. In Canto VI of “It Must Give Pleasure,” Stevens affirms “[poetry] is not a choice/ Between excluding things”(CP 403); he promotes the interdependence of reason and sensation in poetry and in doing so eschews the American urge to contain he describes as “poetry's simple desire.” Poetry, Stevens continues, is an “irrational distortion able to transform the ordinary world into the fluent mundo”(CP 407). Neither “ice cream” nor “concupiscence” are containable; Stevens's poem has the power to elevate (by sensation) only temporarily. But the human corpse in his poem (the stuff of reason) has no more permanence than the ice cream served at her funeral.

Stevens best exemplifies poetry's ephemeral power of elevation in the juxtaposition of “concupiscent curds.” While “concupiscent” is defined as “vehemently desired; worthy to be longed for or lusted after; fit to be desired earnestly” and is perhaps chosen by Stevens due to Plato's use of the word to describe one of the two parts of human “irrational” nature,” “curds” contain the “coagulated substance formed from milk by the action of acids.” Thus, the word “curds” in the poem acts as a synonym of sorts for “ice cream.” Both “ice cream” and “curds,” although connotatively suggesting unnecessary commodities, have but one denotative definition: they are simply milk products. Their use as synonyms, however, specifies the emperor's role in the poem as a monarch over “earnest” lust as Stevens's ruler joins the company of Lamb's “concupiscent clown,” Bullinger's “concupiscent disobedient,” and Shakespeare's “concupiscent intemperate”(OED). Stevens both mocks the poet's pseudo-worthy role in attempting to contain the world around him and humanizes the poet/emperor by proposing a meaning that transcends man's control (Derrida 265).

The addition of the verb “whip” to “concupiscent curds” conjures visions of a meaty arm whisking frothy foam into a creamy substance, and Stevens's metaphor becomes clear as the “whipper” transforms to a poet blending words to form a tangible fiction. The “dawdling wenches” and boys carrying flowers wrapped in “last months newspapers” fall prey to the emperor who “whips up” a batch of lustful desire at this most inopportune moment, stealing the show from what is expected to be the main focus of attention: the grim reality of death. Likewise, Stevens fabricates his own batch of fiction, as he tempts readers to enter a world in which reality is neither what it seems to be nor what it appears to seem.

Stevens's poem succeeds primarily because it fails to contain; long after we have finished reading its words, the poem's dialogue continues. The paradox of the emperor's imperious but impermanent reign--the emphasis on his supreme reign of “ice cream,” his omnipotence in a 16 line poem --imply Stevens's examination of the ability of poetry. The phonetic similarity between “seem” and the letter “c” is no mistake; letting “b” stand for “c” in the alphabet is about as ridiculous as “letting

be be finale of seem.” In his poem Stevens “includes the things/ That in each other are included, the whole,/ The complicate” and in doing so creates “harmony” in his grand “finale” (CP 403).


Work Cited


Bates, Milton J. “The Emperor and Its Clothes.” Teaching Wallace Stevens: Practical Essays. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play.” The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1970.

Filreis, Alan. Wallace Stevens and the Actual World. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Jarraway, David R. Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: Metaphysician in the Dark.

Shreveport: Louisiana State UP, 1993.

Macleod, Glen. “Surrealism and the Supreme Fiction: `It Must Give Pleasure.' Wallace Stevens Journal 14 (1990): 33-38.

McDermott, John V. “Stevens's `The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Explicator 50 (1992): 84-85.

Oxford English Dictionary-CD ROM, 1997 ed.

Richardson, Mark. “Richardson on Stevens's Emperor of Ice Cream.” http://www.wmich.edu/ english /tchg/640/Mark.Emperor.html

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1954.

--- The Necessary Angel. New York: Knopf, 1957.

Viswanathan, R. “Stevens's `The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Explicator 50 (1992): 87-89.

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