Wallace Stevens's Deconstruction and Play:

From Ice to Ice Cream

by Jaimie Crawford

...the angel in his cloud,
Serenely gazing at the violent abyss...

Leaps downward through evening's revelations, and

On his spredden wings, needs nothing but deep space,

Forgets the gold centre, the golden destiny.

-Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, VIII

It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction...

The poem of the act of the mind.

- Of Modern Poetry

During the publication of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Knopf in 1954, Bates in The Mythology of Self records that Wallace Stevens resolutely refused to publish on the back of the volume a favorable “blurb” by John Crowe Ransom. “Defining [a poem] freezes it into immobility,” Stevens reasoned to publishers three years prior to his death, expressing a view characteristic of even his first poems (qtd. in The Music of What Happens 79). Bewitched by the harmony of fiction and truth and the notes formed in the blur between their boundaries, Stevens is now a staple in the diets of many of today's post-modern poets (John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Jorie Graham) who also promote literature as a continual dialogue rather than a “statement or narrative.” Stevens's poetry enacts “a mental process”(Vendler, Music 78); he is always more concerned with the process of reading a poem than with any “answers” derived from a reading. To Stevens, immobility defines the death of both poem and reader, and to prevent such a “death” he injects a tension into his work in the form of a juxtaposition of truth and fiction. This complexity creates for the reader a perpetual balancing act between truth and fiction addressed by virtually every Stevens's critic. What is not addressed by these critics, however, is that this “harmony,” Stevens's trademark ingredient for “supreme fiction,” is a metaphor for life that in the early twentieth century beckoned a new demand on all poetry to follow.

“The Snowman” and “The Emperor of Ice-cream,” written within a decade of each other and both published in 1923 in Harmonium, offer a glimpse of the progression of this harmony in Stevens's poetry. Specifically, the ability of the latter to depict as well as demonstrate poetic process foreshadows not only Stevens's own poetic evolution, but also, more dynamically, changing societal expectations of poetry and art. In “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” Stevens heralds a post-modern refutation “of mere (linear) being” and a demand for literature to be both descriptive and interactive.

“The Snowman” offers an engaging comparison to Stevens's “Emperor” because it begins to address poetry's interactive ability. Simultaneously questioning and praising the poet's ability to describe the ineffable, Stevens inserts the abstract metaphor of “nothing” to depict a harmonic blend of fiction and truth just beyond the perceptible grasp of man. In the last lines of “The Snowman,” he beckons the listener, “nothing himself,” to discern “the nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.” While the first “nothing” represents truth in the reader's own existence and the last, “the nothing that is,” represents the fiction of the poem, the middle “nothing that is not there” discloses Stevens's notion of harmony. This “nothing” explains the ability of the poem to convey more than what the speaker reads and the poet writes. It defines the harmony Stevens comes back to again and again in his poetry, both elusive and characteristic of what he calls “grand or supreme fictions” (the very best poems). He labels it “nothing” in this early poem not to confuse readers, but to acknowledge a sum of fiction and truth summoned by poetry but inexpressible by either poets' language or readers' analysis.

Stevens's choice of the word “nothing” in “The Snowman,” however, is also misleading. It defines an abstract, infinite space primarily by negation. Unlike the metaphors of snowman and wind in the body of the poem (“One must have a mind of winter to regard the frost... and not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind”) that paint a lucid image of the harmony, “the misery in the sound of the wind” that (f)rigid readers (snowmen) repress; the refrain of “nothing” in the last line defines a space between truth and fiction which invites but eludes the reader. Stevens, himself, admits his poem depicts a “silence of the universe” aesthetically superior to any human utterance (Corn 226) [1]. Stevens tempts readers to experience his harmony; he labels us members of the same “nothing” to which existence and poetry belong. But he defines both truth and fiction and the unlimited space in between in terms of “nothing” and therefore restricts us; “nothing” suggests a death, an icy and inanimate immobility. This negation (“and not to think”) embodies a Keatsian paradox: a full embrace of “the misery of the wind” requires us to experience it firsthand through the eyes of the snowman--yet as soon as we do so, we lose our ability to reflect on the experience. In order to capture the “nothing that is not there,” the harmony of the poem, the listener must be “nothing himself”--a “nothing” connotative of death. Stevens's negation breaks only with his final word, “is,” a word that confines readers to the present. By the end of the poem, we are well-versed in the “misery of the wind” which has come to represent our own inability to fully enter the poem: a misery which forces us to stare with unblinking eyes at a world whose beauty we cannot share.

Revisiting what he labels fictive “nothing” in “The Snowman”, Stevens offers readers of “Emperor” something new: a chance to play in his poem. Modeling the abstract idea of harmony more clearly in “Emperor”, Stevens draws readers into his poem with a new technique, a mode of interaction based on pun and parody. Unlike “The Snowman,” “The Emperor of Ice-cream” demands reader interchange. While both the snow and ice-cream of the poems are equally ephemeral, the latter is fittingly consumable. The fiction-in-truth “nothing that is” Stevens once believed to be a holy and ineffable silence (Corn 225), less than a decade later in “The Emperor” is redressed as a mercurial pun, a “be”(truth) causing the end of “seem”(fiction).

“Let be be finale of seem” is a line which readers must return to after every other line of Stevens's poem. This line both repels and attracts us; we are completely unprepared for it in the seventh line of “Emperor”, but compelled at first to ponder its meaning, and next to determine the answer to the question it posits. In this line Stevens, playfully mocking his own desire to contain the poem and readers' desire for a definitive answer, tears down the sacred walls of expectation. Like a siren, he beckons us into the same trap in which he is ensnared: “the desire to contain the wor(l)d,” to determine the answer to the “be” vs. “seem” question.

While “The Snowman” defines the elusive reader/ text/ author marriage Stevens upholds as essential in a “supreme fiction” [2], “Emperor” comes complete with priest, vows, and honeymoon. We marry well because the marriage-place of poetry, the harmony of be and seem, of truth and fiction, offers us an essential gift: the ability to rejoice--in the only place we can do so completely, the safe haven of the poem--in the serendipity of life. The one catch to this gift is that it is as short-lived as the ice-cream of the poem.

“Emperor” is palatable primarily because it deconstructs as quickly as it can be read. Each phrase, beginning with the title/refrain, forces readers into conflict resolution. Cautioned by the emperor to remain dignified, we must suppress a grin when we glance the possibility of a dessert, a child's reward for enduring all this pomp and ceremony. Is this emperor, like an ice statue, carved from ice-cream; or is he a human ruler who will control and limit our enjoyment of frozen desserts? Furthermore, the word “emperor” (um..purr..roar) is not only semantically antiquated but also paradoxical.

This conflict of interpretation offers multiple readings, but all of them exist between the kitchen (of concupiscence) and bedroom (of death) in Stevens's poem. Echoing Stanley Fish, Marshall Alcorn explains this multiplicity of literary interpretation as “a limited infinity,” like an odd set of infinite numbers paradoxically interminable as well as restricted(94). Paul de Man, as well, requires that a poem offer “the most advanced and refined mode of deconstruction”(27). As a result, de Man explains, close readers will reap as the product of their labors not “coherence and unity” but rather the “text's propensity to deconstruct itself”(28). Supporting Stevens's requirement that a “grand fiction” include an ineffable blend of fiction and truth--of poet, reader, and text--de Man affirms that literature is both “condemned and privileged to be forever the most unreliable language”(32).

“Emperor” with its focus on process heralds the literary trend addressed by de Man and echoed by Alcorn, but what makes it particularly remarkable is its ability to both define and demonstrate deconstruction. Resonating Keats's romantic sentiment that process--involving decay and death--is necessary to beauty [3] (Austin 615), Stevens, in two eight-line stanzas, deconstructs and demystifies the human staples of death, art, and subject. Like separating mercury, however, this demystification proves futile. Instead of disillusionment, the poem offers to readers the experience of what “The Snowman” merely describes, a continuation of process; Stevens glorifies neither the death of the poem (the concrete subject) nor the power of the poet (the abstract subject), but a refreshing and life-affirming tension.

Ostensibly about death, “The Emperor of Ice-cream” lacks the somber, stoic tone of “The Snowman.” It lures us into its grip under the false pretenses of a celebration. Joyously stepping inside the poem, however, we are caught off guard, ambushed with an onslaught of demands. Adding to our consternation, we realize not only that we are required to do something, but also that we are not at all sure what that something is. The voice who we mistook to be authoritative is, on second glance, ambiguous, concurrently dependent on and responsible for the poem's meaning. Without the funeral, there would be no need for commands; without the commands, no poem; without the poem, no funeral. Thus, Stevens models the intricate connection between truth and fiction, forcing readers to walk the tightrope between the funeral/celebration, death/life, be/seem of his poem. This awkwardness, exemplified in the juxtaposition of “emperor” and “ice-cream”, intrigues us to solve it by ranking, categorizing, and ordering--by declaring the victory of “be” or “seem.” But as soon as we do so, the experience of the reading ends. The harmony disappears.

More didactic in tone and demanding of the reader than “The Snowman”, “Emperor” not only offers advice but issues tasks. Within the poem are six commands exclusively involving people and items at the funeral. Although specific in their instruction, they are ambiguously addressed: “Let the wenches dawdle...”, “Take from the dresser...”, “Let the lamp affix...” Hurled, one stipulation after another, these demands are directed at either the reader or an unidentified funeral attendant. Both interpretations draw readers into the poem. If the speaker commands us, we are forced to play along, to become active members of the funeral. If the speaker commands an unidentified attendant, we must search inside the poem for this unnamed entity.

The first line of the poem has a similar effect. Before we can turn away, Stevens has “called roll” and along with the emperor and the boys and wenches, readers are not only marked present but issued a job to perform. “Go find the `roller of cigars'!” barks whoever is in charge of this chaos, and before long we are ordered to “bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” Distracted from what are actually the gritty details of a low-income funeral, we feel nearly as if we have come to a party, replete with ice-cream, flowers, and the requisite eccentric party-goers. While we feel alone with the author and wind in “The Snowman”, a surprising number of participants reside in the sixteen cramped lines of “Emperor”.

All of these participants, as well as the reader, experience (like the “nothing” of “The Snowman”) the death of fiction, signified in the poem by the word “seem” (“let be be finale of seem”): the ice-cream caterer imprisoned in the kitchen loses freedom, the corpse's dignity is stripped as her “horny feet “ emerge, and the speaker's (poet's) paradoxical message is so ineffectual his authority is uprooted by the end of the poem. This stripping of freedom, dignity, and authority is both metaphoric and necessarily upsetting to readers. Stevens allows us no assumptions, and our discomfort results from the shifting facades of the poem. If we choose to believe we are attending a party, our guilt will come inevitably with our viewing of the corpse. If we acknowledge our participation in a funeral, we will be forced to atone for our inappropriate celebration in the kitchen. Text and characters, what appear to be “truths” of the poem, are sacrificial lambs, reverential offerings to Stevens's supreme fiction.

The text strips the poetic players (disrobes the emperor, so to speak), evoking a necessary and self-effacing vulnerability in his readers. There is, in effect, no one to identify with in the poem. The participants of the funeral seem disrespectfully passive; they need to be commanded to “dawdle” and bring flowers in old newspapers, and the boys seem more interested in the girls than in the corpse. The speaker is just as offensively aggressive as the boys and girls are preoccupied; all his commanding implies he is both arrogant and ineffectual (like Donne's futile tyrant, Death). Even the corpse elicits our discomfort and guilt because she is so grossly exposed; her horny feet reveal a life lived, the poetry of being, but they protrude from her perch on an old pine dresser. She is, like the poem itself, too big to fit neatly in sixteen lines. Her horny feet, both devilish and concupiscent, belie her own death. In the presence of all this dying--as “be” is commanded to slay “seem”--they give hope in the proof of a vital “seem” persisting in the details of the poem. Offering a sharp contrast to the pastoral “pine trees crusted with snow” and the sacred “wind in the same bare place” of “The Snowman,” the muscles, newspapers, kitchen cups, embroidered fantails, and flowers are distinctively human. While Stevens's characters would otherwise seem skeletal, his details make them both complex and contradictory.

Stevens's emperor, for example, is a fraudulent contradiction who reigns as sovereign over the essence of “seems,” a substance fated to melt in minutes. While reigning over the most space in Stevens's poem (he is repeated four times), the emperor has an identity that is never revealed. In the space of the poem, however, this emperor is not only alive but seems to be the main focus of attention. This paradox represents the central question of the poem: does “seeming” supersede “being”? Stevens's dialogue shifts between what we see--or what “seems” in his poem: a funeral that 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. This equivocation creates a serious dilemma for Western structural criticism: thoughtful ambiguity cannot satisfy a demand for ultimate answers.

As a result of this equivocation, Stevens's poem is simultaneously greater than and different from the sum of its parts, a concept suggested by the “ice-cream” of his title and refrain. His metaphoric choice of frozen dessert speaks of both the impermanence and consumable nature of this sum of parts. The poetic meaning changes from reader to reader, from reading to reading and is both dependent on and controlling of personal experience, mood, and context. Of course, this evanescence of meaning is not unique to Stevens's poetry, nor to poetry in general. It is an example of what Keats and later Stevens label decay and death--the truth essential in beauty (Austin 615)3 , and it lies at the heart of both human experience and what Stevens labels poetic meaning. Subtly flickering throughout the poem, this brevity of experience, of life, of meaning is the subject of his “lamp” which ruthlessly “affixes its beam.” Yet, like ice-cream on a summer's day, “the body,” the evidence of death is gone before it can be scrutinized; readers complete a full circle voyage and are left with the familiar: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” However, these lines have changed in connotation and are now, instead of an ambiguous harbinger, a tongue-in-cheek response to the affixing beam of bright light which scours the poem and reader for “the truth.”

To suggest the absurdity of this truth as superior, Stevens utilizes the metonymy of one corpse, one human death, to represent all death and decay. Like the snowman who exists only in the title of the poem, the female corpse has a presence implied only by the selection of lifelike detail (dawdling wenches, fantailed embroidery) surrounding her. This corpse also speaks of the ephemeral nature of existence (the detailed needlework she once toiled over now covers her cold, dead body), but she is more human (even when dead) than the snowman or even the listener (who is “nothing”) of Stevens's earlier poem. Her horny feet lie protruding from the poem forcing us to contemplate death and more disturbingly, our awkward treatment of it. The “she” of Stevens's poem, like Wordsworth's spirit-sealing “she,” provides an abrupt contrast to the poem. Both women are depicted as things “beyond earthly years” after death; but while Lucy's cold permanence suggests a pastoral bond with nature, Stevens's corpse's homely appearance is stated so objectively it makes us wince. Her “horny feet” contrast the woman she once was to the “cold and dumb” corpse lying before us in the poem.

As the ice-cream metaphor does, the metonymy of corpse implies more than it advertises. The plausible connection (implicated by “feet”) between this motionless, cold, dumb women and poetry has elicited the critical response that Stevens's aim is to expose the bloated confidence of poets and poetry (Bates 144). Other critics, however, utilize this corpse/poetry connection to point out Stevens's running dialogue on the differences between “art and artifice, lie and fiction, and fiction and truth”(Richardson 2, Jarroway 41, Viswanathan 87). Not one of these critics relates the poem as something beyond what Mark Richardson labels a “rivalry for ultimate position”(2). Their commentary invokes images of dead corpses competing with similarly dead poems in a world of “real” (but equally cold) death. While Stevens in “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad” does allude to this problematic entrapment of poetry (“I am too dumbly in my being pent”), he offers no evidence that these limitations are solely “poetic”. In fact, evidence exists otherwise. Stevens's details surrounding the death in his poem are eerily real and certainly not elements of poetic fantasy; the art and artifice, lie and fiction, fiction and truth he depicts are equals. On one hand, the “embroidered fantails,” “dresser lacking three glass knobs,” and “horny feet” utter authentic lower class Americana. Conversely, the more abstract “emperor of ice-cream” and “roller of big cigars” are whipped-up fabrications. In the poem, however, the fantasy and the real meet face to face. Both groups, however, are governed by a greater power--a power Stevens suggests by the three uses of “nothing” in “The Snowman”; this governing agent is neither poet nor reader nor text, but a transient blend of all three.

The central meaning of Stevens's poem, then, lies not in the answer to the “be” vs. “seem” dilemma, but in the question--moreover, in the readers' experience of questioning. Nevertheless, nearly every critic who interprets “The Emperor of Ice-cream” finds it necessary to embrace finality, rejoicing in Stevens's “penultimate” line in which the “being of life gains victory over the seeming of art” (Jarroway 41, Viswanathan 85) or conversely suggesting that 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); Helen Vendler, in the same vein, recognizes in Stevens's lines “Joyce's `scrupulous meanness” in two stanzas that she believes offer “no choice in the matter: death and life coexist, side by side”(Words Chosen Out of Desire 52). None of these readings encompasses the complexity of Stevens's dialogue.

Coming closest to defining the intentions 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 that 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 Western urge toward “a golden destiny.” 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 confinable; Steven' 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. Instead of claiming the rank of either “seem” or “be,” the music of prose, Stevens explains, “is not written but is to be”(Corn 227). A more probable translation of the refrain, then, would read “Let [to] be be finale of seem,” suggesting that the “to be” of poetry, the “mystic marriage” between reader, poet, and text supersedes both fiction and truth.

Further supporting this notion of harmony is Stevens's use of both the corpse and the lamp-affixing beam (a word combining “be” and “seem”) to distract readers from attempting to solve the “be” vs. “seem” puzzle. In lines 13 and 14 we catch one last glimpse of the corpse: “If her horny feet protrude, they come to show how cold she is.” The tone and conditional tense of these lines differ from the rest of the poem, and the speaker sounds both apologetic, defensive, and uncertain. Thus, we respond first with sympathy toward the long awaited corpse, treated so poorly at this decrepit funeral, and then with shock towards the speaker who seems to further demean her. Finally, we notice by the speaker's use of “if” that he is not even sure if the corpse's feet are sticking out (if the poem is too big for its sixteen line structure).

The timing of the following line (“Let the lamp affix the beam”) could not be more appropriate. The reader and the corpse are at the peak of their vulnerability. As readers, we have invested ourselves in the poem, have been drawn into the funeral procession, and have finally witnessed what we were hoping/expecting to glimpse: the corpse. Stevens's light beam, then, is, in a sense, directed outside the poem towards the readers' reactions to death. The corpse (and poem), though, is equally exposed, horny feet and all, and falls just as much under the critical ray of light. Like a magician, Stevens's unveils what could be horrifying (whatever will appear under the blinding beam), only to reveal that the corpse, the poem, and the dreary low-class apartment are gone--poof!--in a cloud of poetic refrain.

This refrain, another break in the imperative structure of the poem, provides the essence of Stevens's deconstruction. If Stevens's ice-cream represents the ephemeral quality of poetry, and moreover, of human existence and meaning, it seems natural that the emperor is to some degree a parody of the poet. "It seems insincere, like playing a part, to be one person on paper and another in reality,” Stevens wrote to his wife, Elsie Moll, prior to composing “The Emperor of Ice-cream” (Bloom 80). This dissonance between his role as poet--a creator of fiction, and insurance agent--a subject to reality, parallels the dialectic of art and artifice, lie and fiction, fiction and truth in his poem. To most of the poems' critics this dialectic takes the form of a debate which weighs the importance of “seeming” with that of “being” (Bates 144, Jarroway 41, Richardson 2, Viswanathan 87).

But Stevens chooses not to choose. Like his dual roles of businessman and poet, fiction and truth are balanced and blended in his poem. Like the commands ambiguously directed at either the reader or another unnamed attendant of the funeral, the role of emperor is not directly clarified. On one hand, Stevens equates the whipper of “concupiscent curds” with himself. On the other hand, this emperor seems to be the character inside the poem who is bid to whip the curds. Through this intentional equivocation, Stevens leaves the role of poet unstable--both inside and outside of the poem. If the whipper of curds (the poet) creates the ice-cream (poetry), the emperor controls him. If the emperor (the poet) orders another (the reader) to create the ice-cream (the poetry), the ice-cream is still to a large degree dependent on reader interpretation. Thus, the most probable interpretation is that the emperor, is not inside or outside of the poem, but residing (as the reader) between the two places, as the participants of the poem are free to walk between the kitchen and bedroom.

This interpretation suggests Stevens's playful taunting of the Western tenets of poetic control and linear reasoning. That the emperor of ice-cream could be either poet, reader, or text is essential to his deconstruction: the process of accepting the marriage of the three involves a reader's demystification and then rejoicing in the power of poetry. With a bit of guile, Stevens explains poetry as “a simple desire to contain the world,” and his recognition of the Western obsession to categorize, define, and denominate allows, if not a freedom from this impulse, an exploration of its existence. By reflecting on process rather than object, Stevens offers in his lyrics a dialogue on poetry's ephemeral vitality but simultaneously caricatures his own process of creation.

Stevens best exemplifies the short-lived ability of the poet to elevate with his analogy 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” appetite as Steven' ruler joins the company of Lamb's “concupiscent clown,” Bullinger's “concupiscent disobedient,” and Shakespeare's “concupiscent intemperate.” Stevens both challenges the poet's pseudo-worthy role in attempting to contain the world around him and implies what Derrida labels “poetry's more substantial ability to transcend definition” (265).

The addition of the verb “whip” to “concupiscent curds” conjures visions of a meaty arm whisking frothy foam into a creamy substance, and Steven' metaphor becomes clear as the “whipper” transforms into 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--whether poet, reader, or fate-- 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 answer the very question it asks; long after we have finished reading its words, the poem's dialogue continues, eternally exalting the “to be” of existence. Whereas in a reading of “The Snowman” we cannot participate in but must watch the “misery of the wind,” the diction of “The Emperor” motivates us to continue its dialogue, a task analogous to living. 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 --implies Steven' 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). This harmony involves de Mann's notion of poetic deconstruction and Lacan's insistence on the inability of language to fully express what we attempt to express. And although “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is, in the most popular literary sense, a poem about death, Stevens's brilliant deconstruction of language is definitively and defensively about life.

 

 

Work Cited

Alcorn, Marshall W. Narcissism and the Literary Libido. New York: NYU Press, 1994.

Austin, Allen C. “Toward Resolving Keats's Grecian Urn Ode.” Neophilologus 70. New York: Neophilologus, 1986.

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: UC Press, 1985.

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

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

Oxford English Dictionary-CD ROM, 1997.

Corn, Alfred. “Wallace Stevens: Pilgrim in Metapor.” Yale Review 71 (1982):225-35.

De Man, Paul. “Semiology and Rhetoric.” Diacritcs 3. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.

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.

Jarroway, David R. Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: Metaphysician in the Dark.
Baton Rouge: 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.

Richardson, Mark. “Richardson on Stevens's Emperor of Ice-cream.”1997.

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

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

Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Vendler, Helen. Words Chosen Out of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

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


Endnotes

[1] Alfred Corn in “Pilgrim in Metaphor” suggests that the early Stevens belongs to a group of poets for whom “the universe is silent...To invent is to fabricate, to fabricate is base or invalid, and so there is truly nothing to write.” Corn, a bit myopically, posits that Stevens's poetry shifts from attempting to describe this “negative ineffability” to accepting “fictions” out of sheer necessity: “If there had been no other figures in the Pantheon Stevens invented for his poetry, he could not have written many more poems.”

[2] In “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, It Must Change IV,” Stevens implies a marriage between opposites has the ability to create and change the two original beings: “Two things of opposite natures seem to depend on one another, as man depends on woman, day on night, the imagined on the real.” At the end of this stanza he rephrases this sentiment: “...myself, sister and solace, brother and delight.” His combination of “myself,” “solace,” and “delight” suggest a union between writer, truth, and fiction (writer, reader, and text) later refered to in “It Must Give Pleasure IV” as “a marriage-place, they loved...neither heaven nor hell.”

[3]Austin in his essay “Toward Resolving Keats's Grecian Urn Ode” compares Keats's sentiments in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Stevens's belief that “the only genuine and lasting satistaction is a truth that includes the fact of mutability.” In this essay, I am less concerned with the emphasized “mutability” of human life in Stevens's poem than with Stevens's ability to model the “mutability” of poetry.


Back to Criticism