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.

"The Emperor of Ice Cream" is a celebrated poem from Wallace Stevens's first collection of poetry, Harmonium. It was first published in The Dial #73 (July 1922), and is therefore in the public domain in the United States, according to Librivox.[1]

The poem "wears a deliberately commonplace costume," Stevens wrote in a letter, "and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry; that is the reason why I like it."[2]


"The Emperor of Ice Cream" is set after the death of an unnamed woman, whose body lies in state as family and friends complete actions associated with burial and funerals. A man is summoned to prepare ice-cream for the wake, while "wenches" - presumably female relatives and friends - appear wearing their usual funeral attire. A sheet once embroidered by the dead woman is removed from a dresser of deal, a cheap timber, highlighting her rather ordinary status. The sheet is used to cover the dead woman but does not cover her feet, which serve as a reminder of her mortality and deathly silence.

The inference Stevens seems to make about these practices are that they are mundane petty ceremonies, rather than preparations for an afterlife. He also notes the gravity and finality of death, suggesting that the "finale of be(ing)" should also be considered the finale of "seem(ing)". Yet there is sufficient ambiguity in aspects of the poem to leave gaps on Stevens' atheism. The "roller of big cigars" and the titular 'Emperor of Ice-Cream' may, for instance, refer to a god, albeit a god of ephemeral things.

Helen Vendler's Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire includes a remarkable prose laying-out of the poem, which discloses it as a reflection on the forced choice between the gross physicality of death and the animal greed of life.[3]

Or maybe Kenneth Lincoln is right to describe it as a "little nonsense ditty".[3]Stevens wrote after all that "a poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully". Not that Stevens understood his craft as a poetic fan dance, the reader a passive observer. He wrote,

things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions very often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain. It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them and that is why poets do not like to explain. That the meanings given by others are sometimes meanings not intended by the poet or that were never present in his mind does not impair them as meanings.[4]

Drawing an analogy with Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Stevens continues, "The score with its markings contains any meaning that imaginative and sensitive listeners find in it. It takes very little to experience the variety in everything. The poet, the musician, both have explicit meanings but they express them in the forms these take and not in explanation."[4]

In popular cultureEdit

  • Composer Roger Reynolds wrote an avant garde, mixed-media dramatization of the poem for 8 vocal soloists, piano, percussion, and double bass in 1961-62.
  • In 1985, Composer Gary Kulesha published a revision of his clarinet quartet named after the poem.
  • "Misha Chellam of the acoustic pop group Speechwriters LLC wrote a song entitled "The Emperor of Ice Cream" while in his high school folk-pop group "Sid and Me".[5]
  • Ken Nordine, beat poet and innovator of a stylistic form known as "word jazz," recorded a rendition of Stevens's poem to the backing of eerily bubbly circus music on his 1994 album "Upper Limbo."
  • Alternative rock group They Might Be Giants used the phrase "finale of seem" in their 1988 song, Pencil Rain.[6]
  • Stephen King made several allusions to this poem in his novels Salem's Lot and Insomnia and his collection of short stories Just After Sunset in the short story "Harvey's Dream", as well as his television miniseries, Kingdom Hospital.
  • The poem was quoted in the film Pathology.
  • Dean Koontz referenced this poem in his book The Good Guy.
  • A soap made by the cosmetics company Lush is named 'The Emperor of Icecream' after this poem.
  • The song The King of Cream by The Love Kills Theory is an homage to this poem.
  • The 1965 novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Brian Moore is an Irish coming-of-age novel.
  • A British band called itself Emperor of Ice Cream, and released an EP "Puerile" in 1993.
  • The hero of Tom Perotta's Joe College reflects on the poem throughout the novel, wondering what the ice cream symbolizes.
  • The heroine of Laura Mcneal's National Book Award-nominated novel Dark Water reads the poem for a high school class and wonders about its meaning.
  • Spenser, the hero of Robert B. Parker's novel School Days quotes from the poem.

See alsoEdit



  1. The Complete Public Domain Poems of Wallace Stevens, Volume 1, Librivox Forums. Web, Nov. 1, 2012.
  2. Stevens, Wallace. Letter to William Rose Benét. 6 January 1933.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Helen Vendler, On 'The Emperoro of Ice Cream', Modern American Poetry, Web, Mar. 30, 2013.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Quoted in Morse, p. 99.

External linksEdit

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