Views on Death in Wallace Stevens' Poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream

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The purpose of my essay is to analyse the poem ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream” written by Wallace Stevens who was considered the perfect representation of T.S. Eliot’s principle about the separation between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” In the first part of my work I will present some information about Stevens’s career and development and in the second part I will analyse the poem, its themes and the elements which hightlightes Stevens’s claim about the nature of pure, basic human existence and the idea of ephemerality of life.

“For most of his life, Stevens was an elaborately defended introvert in a three-piece suit, working as a Hartford insurance executive. He came slowly to a mastery of language, form, and style that revealed a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism. Mariani persuasively numbers Stevens among the twentieth-century poets who are both most powerful and most refined in their eloquence, along with Rilke, Yeats, and Neruda. He is certainly the quintessential American poet of the twentieth century, a doubting idealist who invested slight subjects (the weather, often) with oracular gravitas, and grand ones (death, frequently) with capering humor.”

Stevens’s first book came out in 1923 and it contained the poem “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” which illustrates the idea of death in an interesting manner. “In 1939, Stevens was sixty – an age when most poets are ready to look back on what career they might have made for themselves. But Stevens’s best writing still lay before him in the form of extended meditative sequences, quasi-philosophical in their ruminative wanderings but marked always by a vivid sense of the absurd and a darting, whirling inventiveness that took delight in peculiar anecdotal examples.

In the loosely connected stanzas of these sequences, 'Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction' (1942), 'Esthetique du Mal' (1945), 'The Auroras of Autumn' (1947) and 'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven' (1950), Stevens perfected what had been, in effect, the work he had been producing all along – a metapoetry that took lavish delight in commenting upon its own making. At the same time, he began to grow interested in putting his thoughts on aesthetics together in prose sentences, essays he collected in 1951 as The Necessary Angel. And there was one final, magnificent turn to his development. Entering his seventies, he began to write a poetry of late old age, in which a sense of the disembodied, the purely mental, gave rise to a discourse that had grown newly austere, solemn, and strange even to its author.”

“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.

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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.” Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, 1923.

From the beginning of the poem an imperative voice, probably an unknown master of ceremonies who is the poem’s speaker, contributes to the minimal preparations for a funeral. He is the one who gives commands to a well-build man (“the muscular one”) who is a “roller of big cigars” to whip ice-cream in kitchen cups for the guests. Also, the girls are supposed to wear their everyday clothes, rather than formal attire despite the event and the boys should bring flowers rapped in last month’s newspapers. These orders suggest the idea of simplicity, the funeral being organised in a modest and cheap way, because the woman was poor and her death should not reflect anything else than her simple past way of living. Her poverty is reflected by her dresser from the second stanza made of deal, being a cheap pine wood. Also, despite the occasion which calls for a different behavior and a distinct appearance, the speaker supports and instructs the girls and the boys to wear what they are used to wear and to act normally. All these details sustain the idea that death and its aftermath are not something fanciful or special.

An important element from these lines is represented by the last month’s newspaper, a modern symbol of the ephemeral. The idea of death is represented through the irrelevance of these newspapers, because they are important as long as the news remains new. After their expiration, they are no longer singnificant, just like a human’s life after its death. The fresh flowers being wrapped in old newspapers represent the contrast between past and present, the flowers beginning to lost their relevance soon just like the news or like the woman’s death from the second stanza. The fact that the present will become past after death, just like how the flowers are going to wilt and how the newspaper will become irrelevant after a period of time, sustain the idea of ephemerality, that life will go on after the woman’s death and that it’s not necessary a distinct approach regarding the funeral.

In the next part of the poem the two of “be” can be interpreted one as a noun, the short form from “being”, the act of life and the second one as a verb. Therefore, the meaning of the line can illustrate the speaker’s concern about the reality behing the impression, the importance of showing things the way they actually are : “Let life (being) be the end (finale) of supperficial appearances (seem)”. He is not concerned with appearances and death is not idealized, romanticized or sentimentalized, perspective from which is derived the pointless idea of wearing fancy clothing or bringing flowers in vases or garlands, things which are normally brought to any other funeral.

Another relevant element is the ice-cream. It is associated with both life and death, because this element is tasty, transitory and cold and it can represent joy and cellebration. Also, the cooldness may suit the death, because life may be tasty or perishable, but it’s not cold. Death is associated with cooldness for its scarcely transitory and his mixture in the meaning of the imagine of ice-cream. Therefore, it suggests that life and death represent a bound, being blended together. The idea of cooldness is represented in the second stanza with the dead woman's body to show that she is now cold and silent in death. The ice-cream is ephemeral, it melts aways and it is consummated, so the title reflects that human beings are no more durable to death than ice-cream is to the sun, death being the end of life, an inevitable and natural aspect of living and life being temporary, even though is delicious and attractive. The first stanza ends with the notion that human life is controlled by an emperor, a force which is defined by the transitory symbol of ice-cream.

In the second stanza the setting is moved to the woman’s room where the preparations for the funeral continue. The stanza starts with the command to look through an old, cheap dresser for a sheet in order to be used to cover the dead’s woman’s body. However, the sheet is too short to cover both her feet and face that her callused feet stick out the end and it illustrates the woman’s status as a dead person. All these preparations for the funeral are inexpensive and minimal, they take place in the woman’s house, not in a church and even the food is made in her own kitchen, facts which bring Wallace Stevens’s vision upon death which should not be idealised. The second starza ends in the same manner as the first one, with the conclusion that “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream”.

In conclusion, Wallace Stevens’s work presents a different perspective upon death, being an inevitable aspect of living which should not be romanticized or sentimentalized and it is illustrated through the minimal preparations for the funeral and through some relevant elements such as ice-cream, newspaper, flowers or sheet to present the ephemerity of life and the cooldness of death, both being blended together.

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