May 282003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle

Since Jim Henley kindly listed me among poetry bloggers, the least I can do is a little poetry blogging, I figure. Remember that endless series on How to Read a Poem I wrote a while back? Thought not, but no matter: it’s practice time. I will take Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream, partly because it’s interesting and short, partly because Stevens is one of my favorite poets, partly because it’s inscrutable on first reading, and mostly because AC Douglas suggested it, and I like to indulge AC Douglas. The third-party imprimatur also protects me from accusations of choosing a poem that happens to illustrate my theories, not that I would ever do such a thing.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

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.

My advice was first to paraphrase, and to paraphrase first look up words that you don’t understand in context, “deal” in my case. There is nothing mysterious about “a dresser of deal”: “Deal” is a term from the lumber trade, meaning a board of fir or pine at least 3″ by 9″. (Stevens’ Collected Poems actually has a period after “deal,” which shatters the syntax, so I’ve followed most editors and used a comma instead.)

Now that we know all the words, what the hell is going on? Some sort of social event, whose nature is finally cleared up in the second stanza, when a sheet (embroidered with fantails, in a stab at art) is pulled from a dresser to cover a woman’s head. This is a low-class funeral, with flowers in last month’s newspapers, sloppy wenches, and a dresser with three glass knobs missing.

I also recommended pillaging the poet’s life and work, should it prove useful. Here it does. Stevens was a wealthy and cultivated man who knew Key West well, which is probably where this poem takes place, since ice-cream was commonly served at funerals. His poetry has a single theme: hedonism. For Stevens all is illusion but immediate sensation. “Let be be finale of seem” means “Abandon all effort to give meaning to existence, and take what comfort you can from the roiling life around you.”

Ready to paraphrase:

“Observe the cheap goings-on in this cheap kitchen at a funeral: girls who won’t dress properly, a cigar-roller making ice-cream, a boy bringing flowers in old newspapers.

“Now go to the next room, where the dead woman’s body is laid out, uncovered. Take a sheet out of the drawer and give her a shroud. The sheet is hand-cut, but embroidered with fantails; she tried to make some art out of her life, poor as it was. But the sheet’s too short and her feet stick out, making her look even colder and deader than when she was uncovered. Artifice fails to hide the brute facts. Take a good look. (‘Let the lamp affix its beam.’) Reality is in the kitchen, and there is nothing else.”

If you prefer, Helen Vendler, a reliably awful critic, supplies a more overwrought version. Ignore the prefatory chatter about ur-narratives and ur-forms.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream essentially inverts ars longa, vita brevis, the embroidered sheet being literally too short to serve even as a proper shroud. Vita, if we translate it loosely as animal vitality, is what lasts. Truth resides with the wenches, the muscular roller, the big cigars, and the concupiscent curds. In the idiom of the seventh line, be trumps seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Now that I understand the poem, I don’t like it. Stevens’ immense metrical gift does not desert him; the last two lines of each stanza are beautifully executed tetrameter/alexandrine couplets, which are almost impossible to manage gracefully in English verse, where pentameter is expected. But the poem is snobbish: Stevens invites the reader to sneer at the characters of the poem as from a hill. It is written entirely in the imperative, except for the last line of each stanza, to some unspecified hearer. Imperative tense, used this way, enforces distance: when the boxing announcer says “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!” you can be sure that you (or he) won’t be doing any rumbling, personally. Stevens takes special pains to remove himself, and his reader, from the scene, the better to hold his nose. Even the pleasures of hedonism are only for the few, and only for a while, and here they have spoiled. Now hedonism is an exceptionally limited view of the world, but it has real compensations, and Stevens has written about them elsewhere, in some of the greatest lines of the last century:

She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

(Update: AC Douglas offers his own analysis. He doesn’t seem quite as unhappy with mine as the rest of my commentators.)

  17 Responses to “How to Read a Poem VI: Practice”

  1. Thank you, Aaron, for taking a crack at this.

    I don’t know that I agree with what you had to say, but as it’s been ages since I last looked at this superb poem (as I said, we seem not to agree) I won’t offer my thoughts just yet. Need to reread and again get into the piece a bit before I’d risk that.

    Thanks again.


  2. Your worst analysis I`ve seen.
    You seem to proceed from a faulty
    and way over-generalised notion of
    Stevens hedonism toimplying that
    the poem makes judgements it plainly doesn`t. It leads you to miss that the emperor is triune:
    death, life, and the transitory moment of the poem that ice cream does rather symbolise.

  3. Aaron — I can’t agree that Stevens is sneering. It seems to me he is approving. After all, he chose to write a poem that uses the practice of serving ice cream at funerals to illustrate his idea that "roiling life" is all that matters. How could he vest the contrast between the cigar roller with his concupiscent curds and the cold, dumb corpse with her horny feet with so much importance if he sneered at both of them? I think Stevens thinks ice cream at funerals is a damn good idea, and his distance is less about sneering than it is about, well, distance — he’s rich, they’re poor, and he recognizes that he’s not one of them.

    As you know, I think your poetry posts are some of your best — this one made me think about a poem I wouldn’t have encountered elsewhere. Thanks.

  4. I see the distancing, but not the snobbishness. I read the distance more as a cold reporting with a judgment on life but not the particular lives of those in the poem. Cold reporting with resignation.

  5. I don’t think he’s sneering at the people in the poem; if he’s sneering at anyone it’s his reader, whom he seems to assume (with good reason, I’d imagine) is likely to me most reluctant to "let be be finale of seem." This seems to be one of those early Stevens poems that takes delight in giving the raspberry to the religious pieties of the average reader. "The emperor of ice cream" usurps the role of God (just as "Let be be the finale of seem" and "Let the lamp affix its beam" parodies "Let there be light." The poet of course is the emperor, and the poem’s imperative mood is his parody of the creator in the beginning of Genesis.)

    I would agree that there is some sort of distance between Stevens & the people in his poem, but I think Aaron’s sister is right about the nature of that distance, although I would put it differently. Stevens’ own hedonism (if that’s really the right word for it) is more refined (and much less robust) than theirs. His is a hedonism of the mind, not of the body–or of the head only. It’s a spectator’s hedonism.

  6. I concur with the general revolt against your reading. For me, the imperative heightens our emotional response — Stevens uses it to underscore the severity and finality of the event — you MUST pay attention, it’s that important.

    I think Auden liked this poem as well. Check out his famous use, decades after Stevens, of the imperative to make us feel the overwhelming pain of the death of a loved one in "Funeral Blues"…

    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum,
    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let the airplanes circle moaning overhead
    Scribbling on the sky the message "He is dead".
    Put great bows around the white necks of the public doves.
    Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my north, my south, my east, and west,
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
    I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.

    The stars are not wanted now, put out every one.
    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
    For nothing now can ever come to any good.

  7. Nobody seems very happy with me today, especially with my claim that the poem is snobbish. Aleph calls my claim that Stevens wrote exclusively on hedonism "way over-generalized": it is simple fact. He held throughout his career that the only purpose in life is to cultivate one’s emotions, that the only reality is sensual, and that art of any sort is useless. His greatest poems (The Snow Man, Sunday Morning, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle) are on this theme, as are his worst, as are his in-between, such as the one under discussion. (My discussion of his attitude toward art in this poem was about the only aspect that escaped my critics’ notice.)

    Now the hedonistic nominalist who is also, as Stevens was, a great poet, finds himself in difficulties. Logically he ought to renounce poetry, and Crispin, the protagonist of The Comedian As the Letter C, does just that. Stevens, however, did not. His attitude toward the universe proceeded from wonder, to ennui, to disgust, strictly logically if not strictly chronologically. There is a certain amount of self-disgust in Stevens too, stemming from the same source; many of his poems read like sly self-parodies. The Emperor of Ice-Cream probably exemplifies ennui better than disgust; for better examples of disgust consult The Old Lutheran Bells At Home or any number of his other late poems. So my critics are correct, in a way.

    AC Douglas objects in a separate article to my use of biography. I agree, and have written elsewhere, that it is easily abused, but I cannot agree that knowing something of Stevens’ ideas can’t help you interpret this poem. I, for one, would find "Let be be finale of seem" impenetrable without reference to them.

    Auden’s use of the imperative in Funeral Blues is very different from Stevens’. Auden is obviously addressing his poem to God, or the universe, and Stevens is doing no such thing.

    As for aleph’s "triune" (there’s a band name in that somewhere), I suppose if the emperor of ice-cream symbolizes both life and death, then you get time for free. However, I see no evidence that the emperor has dominion over both. On the contrary, Stevens emphasizes the absolute cleavage between them by placing unruly life and the ice-cream in one room, and art (the embroidered sheet) and death in the other.

  8. re-ACD. I`d actually agree that
    consideration of other works is both useful and important, when it`s not simply misleading. Art takes place within the context of interior debates that may span the course of an artist`s life.
    The problem I have with this analysis is what constitutes that interior debate. That Stevens led
    a hedonistic lifestyle in many respects, that he saw sense impressions as prmary reality, that he cultivated fictions,sure, these are all probable facts. But the diagnostic leap to this constituting incurable epicurean hedonism is a bit too far for me to take.For myself, I`d see his early involvement with symbolism,
    his concerns with the tensions between allegory and immediacy and the possibilities of fictive unifications of such, as being useful places to start from for a general appreciation of his work.
    In this context I`d see his use of the imperative, not as a distancing, but as a demand to focus. The dominion of the poets vision spans an apposition of immediate and allegorical oppositions. The poem is only one poem, and the emperor, and the ice cream dominate both.
    Actually no-one seems yet to have raised the really major question of how to approach this poem, which was posed in a letter to Stevens by the secretary of theICMA* – was he for or against ice cream ?
    *Ice Cream Manufacturers Association

  9. You’ve given an excellent reading of a very difficult poem on its most literal level — the level we absolutely must comprehend before exploring further.

  10. Aaron. good discussion, but the final couplets aren’t tet/alex. The penultimate line of each stanza is three beats, not four, and the final line with its fourteen syllables is not scannable. It would be charitable to call this hetermometrical accentual verse. It would be more accurate to call it powerfully rhythmical free verse.

  11. Hello Tim, always great to see you. I think Stevens intended the rhymed lines in the poem to be read as couplets. "If her horny feet protrude, they come / To show how cold she is, and dumb" is almost perfectly regular tetrameter. I scan the final couplet as follows (accented syllables in bold, feet divided with slashes:

    Let / the lamp / affix / its beam.

    The on / ly emp / eror is / the emp / eror of / ice-cream.

    I don’t find this problematic. The first line is a normal tetrameter with the first unaccented syllable elided, a common pattern in English. The second line does indeed have fourteen syllables but the last two syllables of "emperor" are so short that the line reads as an alexandrine without undue violence.

    "Let be be finale of seem" is more difficult. I read it as a tetrameter line with one inversion:

    Let be / be fin / ale / of seem.

  12. I am not an expert, as many of your commentors appears to be, but Wallace Stevens has been a favorite of mine for 35 years.
    It seems to me that the first stanza is specifically referring to sex (big cigars and concupiscent curds and wenches with boys bringing flowers and old words) and the second of course is about death.
    Was great fun to read it all.

  13. Aaron, I grant that "Let the lamp affix its beam" can be read as an acephalic tetrameter. I prefer to read it "Let the LAMP afFIX its BEAM," which gives it a nice symmetry with "Let BE be fiNALe of SEEM," not to mention "TAKE from the DRESSer of DEAL." The long line I read "The ONly EMPerOR is the EMperOR of ICEcream," with very light stresses on the "OR."

  14. i work as a tutor at a local community college, & one day a terribly confused ESOL student brought this poem in for me to help him with. i wish they wouldn’t do this to college kids, much less great poets. running through it phrase by phrase, i sort of explained it as a set of images contrasting two philosophies which he only alludes to (since he writes about them all the time in his other poetry). but i don’t see Stevens as a real philosophical poet; he didn’t have any ideas of his own. he just made jokes about what he could glean in the Platonic & anti-Platonic traditions as he found them in his contemporaries…

  15. Well, I’m just a dumb high schooler who picked Salem’s Lot off of a book list. This poem was in it, but I didn’t understand it at all. When I approached my English teacher with it, he didn’t understand it either. So I googled it and came here. So thanks, man, for the analysis!

  16. The comments about Stevens and Hedonism are manifestly stupid and wrong. The comment about Vendler, well, you should wish you were so astute. ufb.

  17. If we examine only the poem itself (not the poet, other poems, etc.) , we find this possibility:

    “The only emperor is (also) the emperor of ice cream.”

    There is only one emperor, and his empire includes everything, even “ice cream” and all that it represents in this poem.

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