Wallace Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream” is a great example of a poem that, while limiting itself to a relatively small number of poetic techniques, is still a nice little thought puzzle. Almost every phrase is both metaphorical and ironic; it’s a great example of poetry as compression: the attempt to squeeze absolutely everything that can be contained in the most economical fashion into the shortest amount of lines. It’s also an awesome reminder of why persona is a necessary shield for poet’s voices; the things Stevens hints at in this poem are not necessarily what he might want associated with him for realsies. For the case of this poem, the relatively reasonable proposition that desire trumps all other responsibilities and authorities gets modified in the second stanza (after the turn between the first and second utterances of the refrain, “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”) so that we gradually become aware of the speaker’s complicated relationship to a recently deceased woman whom he loves.
The first thing to reckon with is the artful use of diction to suggest profound ways of thinking about why we act in the ways we do: who is the emperor of ice cream? And no, it isn’t Haagendacz Q. Breyers, inventor of the sugar cone. Something poetic and punny is going on! “Emperor” suggests somebody in authority, somebody who outranks generals and politicians and kings, and here the emperor of ice cream isn’t some historical person like Napoleon, Emperor of the France, but something akin to the sound that comes out of this vehicle:
On a really hot day, regardless of how many other responsibilities or jobs or deadlines or whathaveyou, tell me when you hear the ice cream truck music you don’t want to run to it and be a kid again?! That’s why the Emperor of Ice Cream trumps the Emperor of Dependably Fulfilling Obligations; he has a much cooler empire and a better tank.
Ice cream is the stand-in for all sorts of desires; youth (the “roller of big cigars” not only needs to be so heedless of his health that he smokes the big ones, but we need to stipulate that he’s “the muscular one,” because apparently the speaker must know more than one), sensuality (the beautiful wrapped up in the everyday, like flowers carried in newspapers or curds whipped in kitchen cups), and sexuality (dawdling “wenches”). The Emperor of Ice Cream is a hedonist, licensing all sorts of pleasures and approving of them all. But it’s also important to note that this is the speaker’s assertion, which of course may be ironically or perhaps only experimentally voiced – you the reader don’t automatically need to believe that there is only one emperor, or that the emperor of ice cream has vanquished all the other sorts of authority in your life; you (clever you) are just scrambling about, trying to figure out what the speaker is talking about. At least for the duration of the poem, you can provisionally accept that the speaker thinks desire is king.
The second stanza qualifies the all-encompassing authority of the emperor, but even before that, we might pause about the “concupiscent” curds. Why are they concupiscent, a term we normally apply to ardent sexual desire? I understand that the speaker wants it all to be one — youth, sensuality, sexuality — but really there is a difference between ice cream and sex. And why is everything in the first stanza presented in an old, sometimes outdated container??? “Let the wenches dawdle in such dress as they used to wear” (because nothing’s sexier than last season’s miniskirts, amirite?), “Let the boys / Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers” (why does it matter how old the newspapers are — aren’t the flowers more important?), and even the big cigars are made of tubes of dried up, aged tobacco. Perhaps time, or the attempt to recapture a previous moment, or to elongate for as long as possible a pleasure spent with the object of one’s desire, has something to do with the Emperor, whose rule is absolute but ephemeral:
Empty and dilapidated containers also appear in the more somber second stanza: a dresser of deal that is missing some knobs (drawer-pulls), a sheet that had once been embroidered with fantails, but maybe some of those have come out by now, and the dead body of the woman the speaker has been in the same room with all along — now, too, an empty shell in comparison with his memories of her life. The ambiguity of “deal” (it’s a type of furniture wood, generally out of a soft fir or pine board, and also of course, a stage in the grieving process) may also have an irony to it — this could be his way of remembering her most fondly, or a sign that he has no intention of dealing with her death at all because of his devotion to the emperor of ice cream. But “horny” is quite a problematic word in the second stanza; then, as now, it could refer to corns or callouses, or to the speaker’s feeling horny (he’s aroused, yes, in the same room as a corpse!!). In that respect the concupiscent curds in the first stanza suddenly look a lot more sinister! They’ve suddenly become a metaphor for necrophilia run for your lives!!!
Ok, a couple of options are open to us. For one thing, we can infer that a lot has happened in between the first and second iterations of the refrain. In stanza one the line before the refrain is “Let be be finale of seem” [I love that line!] which is a command to himself and the universe to allow appearances to equal reality (eg, let this whateveritis be what it appears to be, and let us stop asking further questions…). But that sort of attitude works best for the reading in which the speaker seeks to avoid thinking about his departed loved one. And that sort of disconnect (if he’s in an extreme state of denial, he may even have talked himself into believing she’s still alive, in which case his desire for her is not so misplaced), if left unchecked, results in the extremely off-putting suggestion of necrophilia.
No. Ice cream is only around for a bit before melting, and this sort of fantasy of uncomplicated pleasure is just that — a fantasy. He will need to do what his second stanza suggests, “Let the lamp affix its beam” (eg, to look closer at what lies beneath the sheet). We are left with one final ambiguity, about how to read the second refrain. Is it ironic? In that case, the speaker has learned his lesson, and ruefully retracts his allegiance to the emperor of ice cream as he resolves to stop fantasizing and face his grief. Or is he serious? In that case he could be three things: still in denial, a resolute hedonist (I know this can’t work with her anymore, but I still believe the pursuit of my own pleasure is why I’m alive!! I’m a horrible person!), or perhaps someone who resolves to keep on loving the woman who lives on in his memories (one last container of departed things).